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City Council Moves San Diego High School Issue To The Ballot

San Diego High School is situated on Park Boulevard in Balboa Park, Aug. 1, 2...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: San Diego High School is situated on Park Boulevard in Balboa Park, Aug. 1, 2016.

The November ballot measure will ask voters to amend the city's charter so that San Diego High School can remain in Balboa Park. The city charter and state law do not allow schools on public parkland.

San Diego voters will decide the fate of San Diego High School in November. The City Council voted 8-1 on Tuesday to put a measure on the ballot that would amend the city charter so the 134-year-old campus could remain in Balboa Park.

The charter and state law say schools are not allowed on city parkland. The school's first iteration, the Russ School, was built at the Park Boulevard location in 1882, several years before the charter was drafted and decades before the state said schools were not an appropriate use for parkland.

Photo credit: San Diego High School Foundation

The Russ School, which sits at the current site of San Diego High School in Balboa Park, is shown in this photo from 1882.

Photo credit: San Diego High School

San Diego High School is pictured before it was torn down in 1973 to comply with earthquake safety regulations.

The ballot measure will ask voters to amend the charter with a simple majority vote so the school can stay.

Councilman David Alvarez, who graduated from San Diego High in 1998, said it's important to create long-term certainty for parents with children who live downtown and in greater Logan Heights and North Park.

"There is nowhere nearby to build a new high school that could serve these neighborhoods," Alvarez said. "The honest truth is that if the school district were going to build another school, they needed to get to work on that a long time ago (when there was still land available)."

The issue is coming up now because the school's 1974 lease expires in 2024. That lease was the result of negotiations to relocate the school to comply with state law.

Opponents of the ballot measure say the city and school district would be skirting the law and their responsibilities if they continue to keep San Diego High in the park.

Council President Sherri Lightner cast the lone no vote. She said she is in favor of extending the school's lease but is wary of setting a precedent that opens parkland to more uses.

Eric Bowlby, who advocates for San Diego's open space, said the effort undermines parkland protections. By using a charter amendment to keep the school in Balboa Park, backers of the measure avoid a process outlined in the charter that requires two-thirds of voters approve any non-park use of parkland.

"I am alarmed that we can change our city charter with a 50 percent vote and undermine decades of planning to protect our open lands and parkland," said Bowlby, executive director of San Diego Canyonlands. "I don't think this is a good precedent to set for the protection of our open land and park space."

Alvarez, his council colleagues and San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten said the school has always been part of the vision for the park. Early on, prominent San Diegans suggested it should go on the hill, and residents approved a bond measure to build it, Alvarez said.

He countered arguments from the public that the school district might turn around and sell the land for profit. Alvarez said the land would not change hands; the city would continue to own it.

At the meeting, school district officials said they would reimburse the city for the cost of the ballot measure and look for ways to make the campus more of a public benefit. The district has set aside $30 million for the site.

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