Updated May 11: Plaintiffs issue statement saying they will appeal the ruling.
By Miriam Raftery
May 6, 2016 (Alpine) – A preliminary ruling by Superior Court Judge Joel Pressman would set aside a preliminary injunction against the Grossmont District. If the ruling stands, it will allow Grossmont to keep $42 million that had been set aside for an Alpine High School that the district never built. The money is a portion of bond measure funds approved by voters in part for the long-promised school.
The suit was filed by the Alpine Union School District and Alpine Taxpayers for Bond Accountability. The groups have 15 days to file an appeal.
The Alpine Taxpayers for Bond Accountability issued this statement: "We are very disappointed that the judge did not decide in the favor of plaintiffs. We had also always known and realized that no matter which party had prevailed or not, the case was going to be appealed to the Court of Appeal where it had been reviewed and decided once before. Unfortunately, that task will now be borne by one or both of the plaintiffs, but we welcome the opportunity and the chance for this to come out as intended by the voters who enacted Proposition U. The actions and conduct of Grossmont indicates it just does not care about the rather clear voter mandate for Alpine."
The Union-Tribune reports that attorney Craig Sherman, representing the taxpayers’ organization, stated, “…We welcome the opportunity and the chance for this to come out as intended by the voters who enacted Prop. U. The actions and conduct of Grossmont indicates it just does not care about the rather clear voter mandate for Alpine.”
Pressman’s 40-page preliminary ruling follows a 9-day trial that included extensive testimony. Plaintiffs contend the district spent money on items not in the bond and projects that were lesser priority than the new high school. Alpine students have died in the past commuting to schools up to 37 miles roundtrip distance on roads that can be icy during winter weather.
The district has claimed enrollment triggers required by the bonds were not met, though plaintiffs dispute that contention since the 23,245 number was met not once, but three times through the years. But Pressman said only the start of construction counts. The district bought land, but never started construction and withdrew its architectural design review application from the state.
Pressman’s decision parses the language in Prop U, which states funds “may be spent” on building an Alpine High School, which he interpreted to mean the project was authorized, not required—however advertising for the bonds to parents in the districts touted building the high school as a reason to vote for the bond.
Grossmont Superintendent Ralf Swenson issued a statement that reads in part, “This is a win for the students, teachers and the taxpayers of East County, as our Governing Board can now resume their efforts to see that the taxpayer’s dollars are put back to work for the benefits of our schools and the students that we serve. All students at all schools in our district should have classrooms and facilities that meet the current educational needs of those students, and that ensure their safety.”
But board member Priscilla Schreiber, who has dissented from the GUHSD board majority and been a consistent voice supporting the Alpine School and opposing funding a lawsuit to oppose it, had this to say. “Grossmont wins on all counts. Are you kidding me?”
A unification is pending before the state that would allow Alpine to leave the Grossmont district and become part of the Alpine Union School District, which currently serves only elementary and middle school children. The County Board of Education has recommended approval of the unification petition, that would allow the Alpine district to expand to serve high school students and build the high school.
But even if unification is approved by the state and ultimately voters, it would be a hollow victory, if Judge Pressman’s ruling stands and is not overturned on appeal. The right to build a high school, without the $42 million or more needed to do so, would still leave Alpine students forced to commute long distances to school for the foreseeable future.
Total legal fees?