Summer 2003 Newsletter
San Diego Schools Employ Coordinated Strategy To Develop Joint-Use
Diego's civic & elected leadership have set an example for
the rest of the state to follow in endorsing and implementing
the collaborative planning of mixed-use schools that truly serve
as the centers of their communities. With enabling legislation
now in place, San Diego City Schools is about to embark on a joint
powers effort with city agencies to further facilitate this joint
development process around new campuses. NSBN is pleased to present
this interview with Lou Smith, Chief Operating Officer
of San Diego City Schools, in which he discusses the
key components of San Diego's ability to plan and develop joint-use
facilities around schools.
Lou, when we last interviewed you in the fall issue of
New Schools Better Neighborhoods, you were addressing how you
were utilizing $500,000 of your Prop MM San Diego Unified School
District money with the state money to build 13 elementary schools.
Bring us up to date on the implementation of your bond money and
how you're progressing on the building of your schools as centers
We're getting some traction in both sides of our program. The
first is the million-dollar side, where we are repairing, maintaining,
and updating 165 of our existing sites, which is almost all of
our facilities. Right now, we're at 80 of 165, so we're really
getting the work done. As a matter of fact, we plan to have that
maintenance, repair and upgrade work done almost two years earlier
than originally planned. We're building new libraries in 110 of
our schools-many of our old elementary schools have never even
had a true library before. As the kids come back to school, they're
coming back to dramatically improved campuses.
With dramatically increased real estate prices here in San Diego,
our biggest single concern from our new schools program is the
rise in the cost of land. The California Department of Education
will tell you that a new school is supposed to be 14 acres, but
we tend not to build schools even half that size in urban cities.
In City Heights, one of our most densely populated areas, we reached
the point where we are building these schools literally two blocks
away from each other. That's just how many kids we have here and
how dense the population is.
Well, you've gone forward now with special legislation
and with a collaborative partnership between the city and the
school district, creating a San Diego model school development
agency. Give us some background on what you're trying to accomplish,
its purpose, and to how you structured it to achieve that purpose.
A year and a half ago, the meetings really started on what a 21st
century schoolhouse in an urban city should look like. The project
that we were able to put together started as a six and a half
acre school and grew to an 18-acre parcel. This 18-acre parcel
provided not just for the school, but for more parkland, 30% more
housing, and commercial development. So, the group of stakeholders,
including the school district, looked at it and said "this
would be better for us to do as a team" rather than say,
"I'll do my part if you do your part."
I think it's really gone very, very well and, of course, we're
getting to the point where we have to go forward. We've done our
piece of this, we've done our Environmental Impact Report, and
we're getting ready to approve that so we can start acquiring
Why did you need special state legislation, Lou?
My understanding is that we could not have a JPA with full integrated
powers without some kind of an enabling legislation. So we deferred
to the city's lawyers about that and the bill has gone through
committee and should go to the floor soon.
Well I gather the appointments have been made from the
City of San Diego, the Housing Commission and the Independent
Citizens Oversight Committee for the school bond.
Yes. That's important to us. We like to say it's three, three,
and one-three folks from the city side, three folks from the school
district side, and then one representative from the local community.
On School District side, the three folks are myself, Mary Hopper,
Executive Officer to the Chancellor, and Gil Johnson, the head
of our Independent Citizens Oversight Committee for Prop MM.
The Executive officer is Elizabeth Morris, who's the chief
executive of the housing agency. What are the housing needs here?
What's the win for the city?
The win for the city is that this gives them a fully funded project
that's going in there to help create this need when you put the
larger package together. I think it makes it easier for what her
people are trying to accomplish for the city in terms of having
affordable housing, providing more park space than is there now,
and providing child care capacity. There is more economic development
in this area because there is commercial property anticipated
to be in here and that's revenue for the city. So again, it's
almost a textbook thing to have in an area that's revitalized.
Lou, it is said by some around the state and the country
that trying to do this mixed-use, joint-use, collaborative planning
is just too difficult. What are the obstacles and how has it become
the mandate of San Diego where some of the other districts have
found it a pain not worth the gain?
I think you hit the nail right on the head when you said it's
difficult because it's the first time anyone's ever done this.
You have a lot of folks who don't have any money wanting again
to circle each other like gun fighters in the wild west with one
hand on their wallets saying, "you draw first." I think
what we've found here begins with a lot of very senior people
who are interested in revitalization of our neighborhoods. They're
interested in the larger needs of these communities and not just
the need for a school or a low-income housing project. Our city
council here has been just wonderful as has our school board in
I will also add one thing, the people on the senior team here
like each other. So it's people who are not approaching this situation
from a point of wariness or looking at each other with the fish
eye. They are looking at each other as friends who can make this
Lou, you and your superintendent, Alan Bersin, and others
from San Diego, have worked along with New Schools, Better Neighborhoods,
and other collaboratives around the state, to help design the
$25 billion state school bond. What's in that bond that's helpful
to you and what still needs to be done to make it easier for the
folks that you're working with in San Diego to use this money
to the ends that you've just described?
Well, there are a couple of things in there. We've already spoken
about the companion piece that will provide a portion of it for
planning money. AB2588 provides a critical answer to this because,
again, the only reason we were able to pull this off is that we
had an angel in Price Charities to fund the upfront planning costs.
Every governmental body in California has one thing in common-they
don't have enough day to day operating dollars. Obviously the
dollars that are present in the bill are important to us. But,
because we took a $4 billion requirement and passed a $1.5 billion
bill, we're not done. We're nowhere near done. Our schools are
still bigger than we want them to be for our children and Prop
MM, for us, was about fixing up and building a bunch of elementary
schools. We need middle schools and high schools too. So this
kind of money will help us get closer to that goal, to make it
better for our children.
You've noticed the progress we've made with the blueprint and
how things are really improving here in teaching and learning
in San Diego. To me, a lot of that starts with brick and mortar.
You've got to have the facilities to give these kids a chance
to really get a where they want to go in teaching and learning.
What progress are we making with the transparency and
accountability of the school facilities' funding mechanism and
how do we give the public a sense that it's being spent where
it needs to be spent?
I'm a big fan of our Independent Citizens Overside Committee.
They are a bunch of volunteers with whom I've probably spent about
15-20% of my time just meeting, explaining things to them, and
talking to them about what we're doing and how we're doing it.
They've been a wonderful source, and I mean that as a source,
in that they provide us with not only oversight, but with advice.
The Taxpayers Association in San Diego has pushed this for a
very long time. We have of course, regularly scheduled updates
for our boards, our elected officials so that they know what's
going on. We work very, very hard in integrating what we're doing
with the City of San Diego's comprehensive Master Plan, because
we found not only were we building islands in the community, but
often times, we have not coordinated with the city, with what
they wanted to do or where they wanted to go. So again, I think
the biggest single thing is the ability to have this focused oversight.
You've spent much of your professional life with the Navy
doing similar work at the Federal Level. What's unique about the
experience here with San Diego Unified and building schools?
Working with the California contracting code is probably the best
single line I would tell you. It's very similar. We have been
doing environmental impact work here in California for almost
30 years now and, of course, it's the same issues and the same
kind of concerns. So that's familiar. When you go to a classroom
and you see how eager those kids' faces are, and I mean that across
the districts, it just makes you feel good if you're making life
a little better for them.
The redevelopment agency of LA has retained NSBN to advise
them strategically on how they might play a role here. What would
your answer be to what role the redevelopment agency might play
in these collaborative efforts of revitalization in school development?
Well, I think that's something that should just go hand and hand.
There is just enough planner in me to say that we should never
look at doing them in isolation. I truly believe that. Housing
and schools are very critical pieces. They're not all of the pieces,
but they are some of the biggest pieces.
But what are the powers the redevelopment agency brings
that are so indispensable?
You've got to remember under California Law, that we have eminent
domain powers to take land for school purposes only. So the larger
piece of this that will become parkland or infill housing, people
might say you should take some extra housing and densify what
you have now and replace what you take away with more dense housing.
Well the problem with that is under California law, I can't do
that. I cannot obtain property for other than school purposes.
The redevelopment agency can.
Could you talk a little more about the importance of having
a third party convener at the table when you're doing these coordinated
efforts that involve multiple agencies?
I'd say it's important that all the parties are at the table and
to me the danger in any group is that a part of that group would
want to sub out the whole effort to maximize their position, not
so much to maximize their position, and not so much maximize the
impact of their program of what's being done. And I think you
have to have people in there as tie breakers and as people who
represent other outside efforts. Believe me, it's more critical
than it may sound; I would never underestimate the need though,
to have a team as you go forward and not just a bunch of people
who are watching each other. It really is important that the people
on this board, I know them all and they all like each other.
If Alan Bersin let you free for three days to go consult
with the major urban school district in California and how they
might go forward with new funding out of the next state school
bond and their own bond, what would be the nature of the agenda
and the consulting you would offer?
Well, what I would talk about is one; how do you focus your effort.
Then, how you frame your effort. Because to me, we haven't done
anything magical here. And the thing I'm honestly proudest of
is that when I got here, we had 47 employees. We still have those
47 employees. I didn't hire a bunch of guys from out of town,
and I didn't take a bunch of people with me from the Navy. We
just got out the playbooks and said, "here's how we're going
to run this," and they ran it. We went from a projection
$78 million in contracts last year to $227 million worth of contracts
and we're staying within scope, we're staying on budget, we're
getting jobs. Our minority statistics are wonderful, our emerging
businesses got over 40% of our work in the last year and a half.
That's roughly eight times the city of San Diego's percentages.
You can make it all work and you can also do innovative things.
I mean there are things we haven't even talked about that we've
done on the contracting side. It's a matter of how you stay focused
and then how you frame the problems and not being afraid to use
new things. Most of what we do here, we do very conventionally-the
same way they've always done it in San Diego. We just do it a
lot faster and better.
If you get the scopes right, you'll get a better design. If you
get a better design, you'll have an easier time with the construction.
So everything flows from the fact that you knew what you were
doing when you started.