4474 El Cajon Boulevard, Talmadge
When the Hoover High School Cardinals take the field Friday, November 8, for their final home game of the 2013 regular season, it will be an afternoon game under the sun, not a traditional 7:30 game under the lights.
On the afternoon of Friday, September 20, San Diego Superior Court judge Timothy Taylor, following a decision from an appellate court, ruled San Diego Unified School District had failed to conduct an adequate environmental review before installing the light towers over Hoover’s newly renovated football field.
Evading proper environmental review wasn’t the only foul that the district committed. The court found the district improperly used bond proceeds from Proposition S, originally meant as a facilities improvement bond, to pay for the two 90-foot and two 100-foot light towers. Taylor ordered the district to shut off the lights until a full environmental impact report was conducted. Six hours after Taylor’s decision, the Cardinals played on their home field under the lights for the last time this season...and for seniors on the team, the last time ever.
In the waning minutes of the first half of that game, senior-class president Jennifer Nguyen was busy drafting the announcement she was to make to parents, students, and cheerleaders on the field.
“My ASB [associated student body] advisor came up and told me, like, ten minutes before halftime,” Nguyen said during an interview two weeks after Taylor’s ruling.
“So, I made the announcement at halftime over the loudspeaker. I was crying while writing it.”
She pauses to hold back another rush of tears and fans her eyes with both hands.
“There was just so much happening at the time. I just felt like our senior year was going so bad..and then she told me and I had to make the speech.”
After her speech, Nguyen walked up and down Hoover High School’s new bleachers, installed at the same time as the lights, and began taking people’s names down for a petition. She wasn’t sure whom she was petitioning.
“A football game at school is the best place for kids to be on a Friday night. So many students came to the games and now where will they go? We feel robbed and are totally disappointed, especially us seniors.”
Nguyen isn’t the only student who feels strongly about shutting off power to the lights. “It’s every kid’s dream, at least it was mine, to go to high school and play under the lights,” said Austin Brown, a tall, muscular junior who plays defensive tackle and center for the Cardinals. “It’s just a different experience that you don’t get when you play day games.
“When you watch football on TV and see them play night games, you see how hard they work. It’s like teammates really become brothers out on the field, and that’s how I felt. For me, football is my life, and taking the lights away is like taking away part of me.”
The on-field camaraderie isn’t all that Brown and other players will miss. “The other problem is that fewer people can make it out during the day. Parents that work during the day have to miss the games. The same amount of support is just not there.”
Brown and Nguyen’s comments reflect those of many students at San Diego Unified’s second-oldest high school, located on the border of City Heights and Talmadge in Mid-City. During the past four years, the district has been blamed for un-neighborly conduct and the residents have been labeled overdramatic NIMBYs. Meanwhile, the students remained on the sideline, having to make sense of it all.
“I didn’t want to be angry and tried to be as understanding as possible,” Brown said in a soft-spoken voice. “It just took a while for me to accept it as truth. It came as a surprise. We are looking for support out of the community, not to be torn down by them. We are an inner-city school, and this is one way that we can try and make a better life for ourselves.”
The issue, however, is more complex than grumpy neighbors who have nothing better to do than complain about noise and traffic. It involves what appellate-court judges ruled to be a misuse of taxpayer monies as well as a refusal by the district to look into the impacts the lights and night events would bring to their quiet neighborhood.
Yet, despite the defeat in court, San Diego Unified refused to give in and continued to charge forward with similar projects at nine other high schools. Since 2008, district officials have spent millions on stadium lights for Clairemont, Patrick Henry, Madison, Morse, Serra, and University City High Schools.
Public records obtained by the Reader show the lights at Hoover High, complete with the four 90–100-foot poles, a 300-kilovolt electrical substation, drilling, and labor for installation, cost the district $462,800, not including planning costs and employee hours.
And then, of course, there’s the $405,000 in attorneys’ fees that the district paid to outside counsel.
It might not be the end of legal expenses. The district plans to install stadium lights at Crawford and Point Loma high schools, as well as Kearny, La Jolla, Lincoln, Mira Mesa, Mission Bay, San Diego, and Scripps Ranch.
First on the list, and currently under review, are projects at Crawford and Point Loma. The move-first-ask-later attitude employed by San Diego Unified staff has residents crying foul and accusing the district of selling out residents in order to commercialize high-school sports fields and tap into a new revenue stream.
Misuse of taxpayer funds from the sale of school bonds has become a major issue for school districts across the county. Last year, board members from Poway Unified School District were slammed by legislators at the local, state, and federal levels after an investigation, conducted by online news organization Voice of San Diego, found district officials opted to saddle future generations with massive debts in exchange for fast cash payout.
And while San Diego Unified’s bond infractions won’t result in billion-dollar losses, they will cost taxpayers millions of dollars, drawing attention to the lack of oversight for taxpayer-funded bonds.