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By Julie Pendray

Photo via Twitter

June 6, 2017 (Alpine)--Lou Russo, who ran unsuccessfully three times for Alpine Union School District (AUSD) board, has been appointed to Grossmont Union High School District (GUHSD) Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee.

“I am honored to announce that I have been unanimously selected by the Grossmont Union High governing board to be a member of the Citizen Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC),” Russo wrote in an email to news media in early May. “Although I am the representative at large, I will bring Alpine's perspective to the Bond Oversight processes.”

Russo serves on Alpine Community Planning Group and is a previous Rural Fire Protection District board member. In his 2014 AUSD campaign, he described his qualifications as, “… 40 years of education experience in military, public school and corporate education and training,” with background as “a retired USMC Provost Marshal (Military Chief of Police).”

GUHSD confirmed that Russo will serve a two-year term on the committee, which is tasked with oversight for compliance with Proposition U and Measure BB, which raise funds for upgrading school facilities. Proposition U also was intended to create a local high school for Alpine and Blossom Valley. However, GUHSD has not built the school, citing a variety of reasons, including a recession that lowered property tax funding. GUHSD is being sued by Alpine taxpayers and by the AUSD.

Russo, who has an educational background, won the CBOC position over two other candidates, according to Catherine Martin at GUHSD.  The other applicants were Oday Yousif, a San Diego State student and former GUHSD student who ran unsuccessfully for the GUHSD board in 2016, and Carla Slater Kettrick, a data manager, ministry assistant and clinic coordinator at Foothills United Methodist Church. View all three applications.

Russo did not respond to phone calls or an email from East County Magazine regarding his views on current legal battles over the Alpine high school or about Alpine’s proposed unification. He also has been unresponsive to this magazine’s communications for previous stories. However, in his 2014 AUSD board campaign statement published on Alpine Community Network, he stated, “I have always supported a high school for Alpine.”

But Bill Weaver, chairman of Alpine High School’s Citizen’s Committee from 2005 to 2011, told East County Magazine, “My personal observations over the years since 2005 lead me to have the opinion that Lou Russo is not going to help Alpine in any way to get its bond promised 12th GUHSD high school by his being appointed to the GUHSD – CBOC.” Weaver said Russo attended only a very small number of the group’s meetings and was “more of an antagonist than a proponent” of the effort to create the school for Alpine.

George Barnett, who serves on the planning group with Russo, stated in a news release, “It is indeed appropriate to have an Alpine resident on the … Bond Oversight Committee. We are fortunate to have an outspoken person in the form of Lou Russo to represent Alpine’s interests. But he's been vocal in public forums opposing spending money on the lawsuit against the GUHSD and saying the AUSD would be better off to spend that money in other ways … I ask Mr. Russo to publically commit to working forcefully on the CBOC in representing Alpine’s right to its own high school, and to have it now!” 

Barnett and Russo have butted heads over planning group issues at times too, for example over application of the Brown Act, which lays down rules for public meetings. Russo’s communication style at planning group meetings came under fire in a story by The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2011.

The CBOC has previously been the subject of controversy, when Nick Marinovich resigned his position, contending the committee acted “like a lapdog, not a watchdog—failing in its oversight duties,” as reported in this article by East County Magazine.

The 11 members of the bond oversight committee are volunteers appointed by the GUHSD board. They walk school campuses, review project planning documents, monitor community meetings, and examine audit reports to verify that the school district is using bond dollars effectively, responsibly and in compliance with Measure U/BB ballot language, according to GUHSD. The committee issues an annual report and holds public meetings.

Alpine’s K-8 schools feed into Grossmont high schools, so Alpine property taxpayers are part of the GUHSD. Successful bond measures in 2004 and 2008, propositions H and U, were designed to ensure GUHSD would build an Alpine high school to eliminate the need for East County students to travel so far. However, the Grossmont and Alpine districts disagree over whether a GUHSD enrollment trigger was met.

In a 2016 AUSD lawsuit, a judge found in Grossmont’s favor. The planned start of construction for the Alpine school is now slated for 2032. Bonds raised by propositions H and U mature in 2033 and 2045, respectively.

In recently filed court appeals, AUSD and Alpine Taxpayers for Bond Accountability argue that GUHSD has mismanaged bond funds and deliberately misled voters. They maintain that the enrollment trigger was indeed met and that the court needs to give more weight to the intent of voters, which was that bond funds raised would be spent building the school. The lawsuit has sought an injunction to mandate that GUHSD save bond money raised for the school’s construction. However, the bench trial judge did not ultimately approve the injunction.

As of April 20, 2017, AUSD had spent $758, 784.31on the legal case, according to the district. GUHSD had spent $3,215,381.18, with $234,900 remaining as current authority for that defense, according to the district’s Catherine Martin. Grossmont’s expenditure is coming from bond funds, according to the district’s attorney in the appellate case, Khai LeQuang.

All property taxpayers within the Grossmont district pay the principal and interest on the bonds issued. The combined Proposition H (2004) and Proposition U (2008) tax rate for Fiscal Year 2016-17 was 0.05717 per $100 of full value of property, according to the County Treasurer-Tax Collector’s Office. For example, owners of a property assessed at $500,000 would pay $285.85 a year to cover the bond measures.

Another issue raised by proponents of the Alpine school is why GUHSD developed site plans for the school, sent them to the state Architect (DSA) in 2012, then asked for the plans to be returned and did not proceed with construction.

According to a spokesman for the Division of the State Architect’s office recently, the plans were for a property at 3090-3111 Alpine Blvd. “The project was submitted to DSA in three increments,” Ken Hunt stated by email for East County Magazine. “DSA approved the first two increments, with scopes of work related to site work and vehicular bridges. The third increment submitted, for the proposed school construction, was submitted incomplete and returned on April 19, 2012 at the request of the project architect. The school district has not resubmitted since that time.”

In addition to the lawsuit, AUSD is seeking district unification through the state Board of Education. That issue may go before the Board in June. No June meeting agenda has been posted yet. Russo, in his AUSD board campaign statement in 2014, said, “I support (unification) if it is the only way for Alpine to achieve its goals. I can ONLY support it if it does NOT adversely affect the elementary district and the community of Alpine.”

To read more about the battle to site a high school in Alpine, go to this East County Magazine story.

To read about the move for unification click here.

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