Will Harvard or Notre Dame come to a South Bay university site as Sweetwater school district boardmember John McCann suggested in November? Will taxpayers vote for another bond to build a university? Will the City of Chula Vista build a bigger and better university before the school district’s university gets off the ground? These are the juicy prospects that dangle before South Bay residents.
At the Sweetwater Union High School District’s November 14 board meeting, trustees voted to go forward with a concept that interim superintendent Edward Brand said he affectionately calls “Sweetwater U.” The project is dependent on voters approving a bond measure in 2012. In a mid-December interview, Brand said the district was currently conducting a survey to determine public support for the university and “the threshold of the tax burden” the public is willing to bear. According to Brand, the district has retained a consultant named John Fairbank to conduct the poll.
Fairbank has helped the Sweetwater district secure two construction bonds in the past. South Bay residents approved Proposition BB, a $187 million measure, in 2000 and Proposition O, a $644 million bond, in 2006. Regarding Sweetwater U, Brand told the Union-Tribune in November that “he didn’t have an estimate as to how much the facility would cost or how large the bond measure would need to be.”
The next steps toward the university will be determined by the consultant’s results, which Brand said should be available when the district returns from winter break.
The City of Chula Vista has long sought a university of its own. In a December interview, Gary Halbert, assistant city manager, reported that the City is in the process of gaining land entitlements. He said that the City is negotiating with Otay Land Company and Otay Ranch (JPB) for at least 345 acres on Hunte Parkway, close to the Arco Training Center. The developers will exchange the land and money for increased density in future developments. Preliminary environmental studies are already under way on the 345 acres.
The City of Chula Vista has been working on the university deal for a long time. As far back as 2005, the Union-Tribune wrote that the city council had “approved a 10-member citizen advisory panel and allocated $707,000 for two consulting firms to guide the effort.”
In 2010, the City paid $78,202.61 for an options and feasibility study. The study established the need for a university in the South Bay.
By 2019, according to the study, there will be a 16.4 percent increase statewide in the number of students seeking an undergraduate education. At the same time, “physical capacity pressures are being experienced by 79% of the community college districts, 78% of the California State University campuses, and all of the University of California campuses except the recently-opened UC Merced.”
However, the study contains some discouraging analysis. For example, “Of the 5,900 students graduating from the [Sweetwater] district in 2008, about one-third was eligible to attend a CSU or UC institution.”
Another dismal statistic concerns the finances of potential university students. The study found that in South Bay schools, 51.6 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
The study points out that a private university would be dependent on “significant private capital contributions for start-up and operational costs.” However, corporate philanthropy is unlikely because “another regional reality is that very few large corporations are headquartered in the county.”
The school district had hoped to build Sweetwater U in collaboration with the City of Chula Vista and to build it on Chula Vista’s property.
Brand’s calendar, obtained through a public records request, shows that he met with City of Chula Vista officials several times to discuss a university. On November 28, Brand and trustee John McCann met with city manager Jim Sandoval and Mayor Cheryl Cox. The next day, a Union-Tribune headline read “United Push on University Eludes South Bay.”
Assistant city manager Halbert said in an interview that the City of Chula Vista is not wedded to any university concept and that “all options are on the table.” He discussed the possibility of having multiple colleges on one site. Halbert did not rule out resuming discussions with Sweetwater, particularly if a bond were passed.
Meanwhile, Sweetwater is looking at another, smaller site. According to Brand, the school district is considering a 50-acre piece of land that it owns in eastern Chula Vista. Ironically, the site is adjacent to the City’s 345 acres.
Gaining public support for Sweetwater U will be an uphill battle for the district. Before the motion to go forward with the university passed at the November board meeting, many people who spoke during public comment said they found the idea appealing but could not support it. A frequently reiterated point was that the district needs to concentrate on improving the education of its students. Fourteen of the district’s schools, as well as the district itself, have been identified for “Program Improvement” after failing to make progress toward proficiency goals.
Boardmember Bertha López wants to see a university in South Bay, but she voted against the motion. In a December 19 interview, López said, “We need to spend all of our time developing and implementing instructional best practices to support our 7 through 12 students.”
However, López’s primary opposition to the university is that building it is contingent on passing another school bond. She is concerned about the financial consequences for residents of both the newer eastside and older westside areas of town. “I have a lot of friends on the eastside and the westside,” López said, “who have lost their homes or are upside down in their loans, and then we’re asking them for another bond? I don’t think so.”
Larry Breitfelder, president of the Chula Vista Taxpayers Association, says he believes that the university/bond proposal presents financial and ethical problems. In a November 20 phone interview, Breitfelder said his “phone and email accounts have been buzzing with comments ranging from troubled to outraged.”
“Homeowners are already heavily burdened from bonded debt,” said Breitfelder, “including a major recent bond for Sweetwater. Aside from the direct expense, all of these bonds make our homes less attractive to buyers at a time when values have already dramatically declined.”