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Joe Messina: Candidates speak out on Castaic high

Posted: August 1, 2009 5:45 p.m.
Updated: August 2, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
We can all agree it has taken far too long for the William S. Hart Union High School District to find a site upon which to build a high school in Castaic.

After all, the original crop of children whose parents hoped to send them to the new school have not only finished junior high, but they've also graduated from Valencia High School and had time to put a good dent on a college degree.

Yet the Hart district hasn't even found a site, much less broken ground.

However, to say it has taken too long is the easy part. Putting forth a solution - and building a team with the qualifications to make the solution work - is the real task at hand.

As a candidate for the Hart district Governing Board, I am uniquely qualified to not only find that solution, but also put it in action.

These qualifications include, but go well beyond, my general résumé as a candidate - such as my 15-year background as a business owner, or my 25 years of experience in the information technology sector.

Simply put, I've been pushing for a Castaic high school since 2003.

During that time, as a member of the Measure V oversight committee, I have fought to preserve taxpayer funding for a Castaic high school.

Measure V, approved by voters in 2001, authorized $158 million in taxpayer funding for Hart district construction projects.

Serving on the Measure V oversight committee has proved to be an ongoing uphill battle, during which it often felt as if some district leaders would rather the oversight committee did a lot less "overseeing."

While trying to make sure the district spent the money as intended, we had to wade through records and sort out financial discrepancies that included approximately $42 million in cost overruns and some questionable financial decision-making at the district office.

This experience, while challenging, has given me a firsthand perspective and allowed me to identify areas where improvements can be made.

Last fall, the Hart district went to the taxpayers' well again, asking for - and receiving - approval of a $300 million bond initiative, Measure SA.

When the Measure SA plan was announced, I and several other Measure V oversight members cried foul.

We did not oppose a bond initiative, per se, as a means to finance school construction, but the district had not yet demonstrated it could spend the first $158 million responsibly, and we felt it would be wise for the district to first get its Measure V house in order, and to include stronger oversight provisions, before asking taxpayers for more funds.

So, the tally since 2001 stands at $458 million of your money approved for construction projects. Some of that has resulted in real improvements to existing campuses.

However, it's alarming that after nearly a decade and almost a half-billion dollars in voter-approved funding, the district seems no closer to building a high school in Castaic than it was in 2001.

This, despite the fact that a high school in Castaic is supposedly the district's highest construction priority.

I've written previously about the trail of broken promises and ill-advised, last-minute pre-election plans that have been put forth, only to be dashed - including the latest, in which the district tabbed the Sterling-Gateway property as its preferred Castaic site, even though the property was encumbered with deed restrictions that would prevent a school from being built there.

The history is well documented. But what would I do differently?

I'd start with the community.

The key stakeholders in Castaic always seem to be the last ones invited to the Hart district's party, which results in a now-familiar pattern: A heavy-handed bureaucracy identifies a site for a construction project, starts moving forward without community buy-in and without adequately assessing the site's suitability, and then residents object, only to be labeled as "NIMBYs." (Not In My Back Yard.)

And then everyone wonders why it backfired.

As a board member, I would call for the creation of a Castaic high school site selection team that would include Castaic stakeholders, including representatives from the Castaic Area Town Council and the governing board of the K-8 Castaic Union School District.

Also included on this team would be key people from the Hart district staff, as well as legal counsel and individuals with real estate expertise.

In the interest of efficiency, the size of the team would be limited to approximately five people - but the key groups would be represented from the beginning, so we can end the cycle of shooting first and asking questions later.

The team would be tasked with finding two or perhaps three potential sites and moving forward with laying the groundwork on them simultaneously. The team would carefully work through the answers to the questions, "Why will it work?" and "Why won't it work?" for each site.

Once a top choice has been identified, we would work toward securing that site - while also continuing to move forward simultaneously with an alternate, in the event that a "deal-breaker" emerges for our top choice.

Simple as it sounds, this process represents a departure from the way the Hart district has approached site selection in the past.

And, while nothing guarantees there will be no "NIMBY" type of reaction, bringing key stakeholder groups into the process early increases the chance we will find a site that sits well with the majority of the community.

A Castaic high school must be the district's No. 1 construction priority, and this is about much more than putting up buildings. It's about keeping promises to serve the best interests of all of our valley's children.

This much-needed campus will also ease overcrowding at other campuses, diminishing the degree to which our district-wide resources are stretched beyond designed capacity.

As a member of the Governing Board, I will fight to keep the district's eye on that ball, so we can, once and for all, find a site and build the high school that is so sorely needed in the Castaic area of our community.

It's long overdue.

Joe Messina is the founder of The Wildcat Group and a candidate for a seat on the Governing Board of the William S. Hart Union High School District. More information about Messina and his campaign is available online at www.Joe4Hart.com. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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