San Diego High Lease Reprieve Targeting City Voters to Approve

San Diego High School sits on Balboa Park property and is on a 50-year lease that expires in 2024

There's a cloud of uncertainty over San Diego High School, as officials now look to the end of its lease in Balboa Park.

Will the city -- meaning the voters --extend it? 

It's not widely known, but San Diego High actually sits on Balboa Park property – separated from the main park by Interstate 5, built in the early 1960s -- and has been allowed an exception in the City Charter for a 50-year lease that expires in 2024.

Relocation, in the view of San Diego Unified School District officials, is a non-starter. 

"San Diego High School has been on its current location since 1882. Fifty years before the (City) Charter was amended, and that's what's under dispute right now,” says Richard Barrera, vice president of the district’s board of trustees.

“We’ve got some 80 joint-use parks with the city of San Diego, and we’ve got 50 in the hopper,” Barrera added in an interview Tuesday. “So, we’re a net contributor to parkland.”

So why not just 'grandfather in' the campus, originally known as "The Cave"? 

Back in 1974, when a similar situation arose, the city invited the district to file a lawsuit that was settled through a dollar-a-year lease agreement which runs out eight years from now. 

On Tuesday, after an hour’s worth of impassioned testimony from dozens of speakers both for and against extending the agreement, the City Council voted 7-1 to direct the city attorney to prepare language for a ballot measure aimed at keeping San Diego High in place beyond 2024.

“Let’s lead with our heart in this and remember why we’re here and make sure our children become lifelong learners,”  said Councilwoman Marti Emerald.

Civic activists who are critics of the lease extension say school administrators have had 42 years to explore potential alternatives, but are letting the clock run without devising a Plan B if the lease were to go un-renewed.

Their position is that the academic buildings, gymnasium and rest of the campus site could be put to higher and better uses for the taxpayers, such as conference centers, museums and rental quarters for nonprofit organizations. 

“They (the district) have plenty of land, they have plenty of money, and this is a resource that belongs to the citizens of San Diego -- not the Unified School District,” says Paradise Valley resident Kevin Swanson. “This is a park that was given to the citizens. The mayor and City Council should be looking at what they can do to re-purpose those buildings within the park use structure that would generate income for Balboa Park." 

There have been city attorneys’ opinions issued in 2014 and February of this year, that under the Charter it would take a two-thirds majority of voters to approve "non-park" uses in Balboa Park. 

But municipal lawyers have since advised the Council that the Charter provision behind the two-thirds requirement could be removed through an amendment by a simple majority of the electorate.

Opponents already are threatening to file lawsuits over the issue, warning the change would open the door even further for future non-park uses in Balboa Park.

Some cite the argument by a chief deputy city attorney who crafted the 1974 lease that the agreement was meant to be a one-off deal, with no further extension. 

To be put before city voters, the Charter amendment is a question of 'either/or' -- not something that seems a ready case for compromise. 

"Displacing families is a concern for me, in terms of our public education system needs to be utilized,” Point Loma resident Rachel Rose told NBC 7. “And so I would really be concerned about where they would be able to go. I would want to see what enrollment numbers San Diego High actually gets, and how far away people are going to have to move if the school's not there anymore."

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