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— No matter how troubled or dysfunctional its educational policy may seem, the San Diego Unified School District is still big business. With an annual operating budget of just over a billion dollars and another $1.5 billion in Prop MM bond money to spend on construction, the district cuts a powerful figure among local vendors, who profit from architectural and construction services, paper clips, computers, and photocopying machines, and the huge payroll for teachers and support staff.

Then there is the district's real estate, a multimillion-dollar portfolio of some of the choicest land in the city. Most is occupied by schools, but hungry developers, eager to build shopping malls and condo complexes, all in the midst of the region's biggest real estate boom, covet much of the land that isn't currently used for education and even some that is. The spare property is a mixture of closed schools, land that was acquired to build schools that for some reason were never built, and industrial buildings and warehouses.

Developers and their lobbyists are a quiet but constant presence in the school- district offices, meeting with friendly school-board members, lobbying staff members, trying to get any kind of edge they can in the race to relieve the district of its "excess" property. In some cases, developers attempt to influence administration officials directly, suggesting possible school closures or mothballing of support facilities in order to make way for commercial or residential development.

Another example of developer influence came this summer with the easy passage of an Assembly bill sponsored by Democrat Christine Kehoe. The measure, expected to be signed by the governor, will create a so-called joint powers authority, combining the political might and public money of the city's Redevelopment Agency, its Housing Commission, and the school district, ostensibly to build a new elementary school and replacement housing for the units torn down for the school. But the bill also allows large-scale commercial development on the proposed City Heights site, and it is expected that a select few developers will benefit substantially from a taxpayer-financed project much more expensive and elaborate than once deemed necessary to achieve the original goals.

So far this year, Kehoe has received thousands of dollars from business and development interests, including McMillin Management Services of National City ($3000); Vonnie McMillin ($1000); Casey, Gerry, Reed & Schenk ($1250); Regional Council of Carpenters ($1000); California Building Industry Association ($1000); City Heights developer William Jones ($1000); real estate investor Bud Fischer ($1000); San Diego County Apartment Association PAC ($1000); and Laura Galinson ($500) of Price Entities, an organization related to the nonprofit Price Family Charitable Fund, which first proposed, underwrote, and backed the school JPA plan.

Two weeks ago, Kehoe, who most agree faces only token opposition, mailed a fundraising letter to many of her business supporters, asking for even more money. "As Assistant Speaker Pro Tem, I am automatically a target of attack -- my opponents would love nothing more than to weaken the position of a member of the Democratic Leadership," the letter began.

"This election is about what comes next, and I need your financial support to show that I am ready for the battles ahead. Please help me send a clear message to anyone who wants to attack our efforts that we are ready to continue our work together for the City of San Diego.

"My fundraising is behind schedule, and I still need to raise nearly $200,000 between now and November -- with your help I can put my fundraising on track.

"We were able to help the San Diego Unified School District and the City of San Diego form a joint agency to develop a mixed-use school project in City Heights that combines new school construction with replacement housing, recreational areas, public facilities, and neighborhood retail shops. I am proud of the work we have accomplished and am committed to continue working on the issues facing San Diego, but I cannot do this without your financial support."

From many developers' point of view, the biggest obstacle to development of school-owned land has been the state-required four-to-one majority board vote to approve sale or long-term leases of land. That was a big factor two years ago in the demise of district superintendent Alan Bersin's ad hoc real estate committee, controlled by Bersin's father-in-law Stanley Foster, a wealthy San Diego clothesmaker and real estate magnate who died earlier this year. Foster's committee came to public attention as it drew up a list of what it considered likely development sites to be cast off by the district. It was quietly folded following voter rejection in November 2000 of school-board candidate Julie Dubick, a real estate lawyer who was heavily backed by development interests and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. She was expected to have been the fourth go-ahead vote to sell off the land.

Since then, jockeying among developers and school vendors for a piece of the school-district pie has continued unabated, and this year's two school-board races, which again offer development interests a chance to obtain the fourth pro-development vote on the board, are shaping up as yet another test of strength for the various lobbies that depend on the school district for their livelihoods. The San Diego Education Association, the schoolteachers' union, has endorsed Jeff Lee and incumbent John de Beck. Various business interests have come out in favor of their respective opponents, Katherine Nakamura and Clyde Fuller, and the Union-Tribune, which consistently has favored more growth and development, joined in this week.

Ballot endorsements, on file with the Registrar of Voters, are another way of handicapping the candidates. Nakamura has recruited some of the city's most wired politicos to back her bid. Heading the list is Sheriff Bill Kolender, the onetime police chief of San Diego who later went to work for the Union-Tribune and assisted the company in its ultimately successful battle to oust the Newspaper Guild, the union representing reporters and the paper's advertising sales force, from the plant.

Over the years, Kolender has championed a number of causes backed by the Union-Tribune and the city's business establishment, including the Chargers ticket guarantee. After a rocky tenure as police chief, during which he was forced to defend himself in 1986 against charges raised in the Los Angeles Times that the department had fixed traffic tickets for Chargers team members, Kolender found his place with the Union-Tribune.

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