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Alan Bersin's disappointment with San Diego Unified

School district pushing for land purchase

It's not easy to take on the likes of San Diego Unified School superintendent Alan Bersin. Subject of endless rounds of favorable coverage in the Union-Tribune and the darling of its editorial board, son-in-law of one of the city's most influential land owners, backed by millions of dollars from San Diego's political and business establishment, Bersin, an old college friend of President Bill Clinton's, gets his way on almost every issue that comes before the board of education. But two weeks ago, the juggernaut came to a sudden halt -- at least for the time being.

The subject of Bersin's disappointment was not his much-vaunted, controversial "Blueprint for Student Success," which, after an eight-hour, commotion-filled meeting, passed a bitterly divided Board of Education, 3-2. Instead, it was an obscure item to condemn 25 acres of land at Interstate 805 and Highway 52 for $16 million that came before the board just before the "Blueprint" ruckus. The item failed on a 3-2 affirmative vote because it did not garner the two-thirds majority vote required for passage.

The item had nothing to do with education, per se, but plenty to do with the school district's growing real estate empire, which many believe the former United States Attorney is anxious to develop on his way to a career in local politics and beyond. It was brought down by Bersin's chief nemesis on the board, Frances O'Neill Zimmerman, a La Jolla matron with an eye for the bottom line, who fears that the proposed condemnation is the first step in a wildly overpriced scheme -- as yet unknown to the public -- to assemble a multimillion-dollar "administrative campus" north of Interstate 8.

Zimmerman and fellow board member John deBeck voted against the plan, after she pulled it from the board's so-called "consent agenda," where it would have been approved without public scrutiny and board discussion.

Zimmerman points to a series of internal school-district memos, including one by Bersin himself, touting the idea and showing it was hatched by what Zimmerman says is a secretive real estate advisory committee run by Stanley E. Foster, a wealthy local developer who is Bersin's father-in-law. According to another school-district memo, the site Bersin now wants to purchase has turned out to be more expensive than the one originally recommended by district staff.

Though the plan has yet to be disclosed to the public, school-district memos show that Bersin and his developer father-in-law want to build a new "administrative campus" on Cardinal Lane off Highway 163 near Genessee. To do so, they would sell off the old administrative complex on Normal Street in University Heights to real estate developers. The district would also have to move the warehouses currently on the Cardinal Lane site; Bersin wants to acquire the 805/52 site by condemnation and move them there.

Development of the proposed administrative complex and its steep price tag, which Zimmerman argues would suck money away from new-school construction, should be carefully considered in public hearings before Bersin and his father-in-law's real estate committee proceed further with their expansion plans, she says.

Zimmerman says she is also concerned about the secretive nature of the proposal and that untoward influence by lobbyists and others may have been brought to bear in an attempt to sway the board and its staff in the condemnation matter. Zimmerman has been a critic of Bersin's real estate advisory committee ever since she first learned about it in October 1999. Her re-election bid has been opposed by Bersin, Foster, and their supporters in local real estate and business, who claim she is obstructing Bersin's school-reform plans.

Foster, along with his associates in San Diego real estate and individuals with a direct financial interest in the 805/52 land deal, have given more than $5000 to the campaign of Zimmerman's opponent, lawyer Julie Dubick. And a last-minute hit piece against Zimmerman, sent out the weekend before the March primary by an independent political committee calling itself "Citizens for School Reform," was financed in part by a $1000 contribution by Stephen Williams, president of Sentre Partners, the company that has had extensive real estate dealings regarding the office park in which the 805/52 property lies.

In addition, Dubick's law firm, Seltzer, Caplan, represents the owners of the 805/52 property in dealings with the school district. James Dawe, a partner in Seltzer, Caplan, said in an interview last week he'd had a personal conversation with a school-board member -- whom he declined to identify -- regarding his clients' pending business before the board. The school district itself has no laws requiring lobbyists to register or disclose their nonpublic contacts with board members, but Jennifer Hardy Seelicke, another Seltzer, Caplan lawyer, is registered by the City of San Diego as a lobbyist for the entity that currently owns the 805/52 property.

In a September 1, 1999, memo to the board of education, chief district administrative officer Henry Hurley warned board members that Dawe had been contacting district staff about the pending acquisition and might attempt to reach boardmembers to lobby them individually.

"Mr. Dawe communicated with Georgia Snodgrass from Business Services earlier this week," according to the memo. "Ms. Snodgrass informed Mr. Dawe that any decision by the district to consider imminent domain actions would require board approval. Given Mr. Dawe's previous letter to me and the nature of his phone conversation with Ms. Snodgrass, it would not surprise staff if Mr. Dawe contacts boardmembers directly.

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"Please understand that Mr. Dawe is representing his client's interests and may characterize the situation in the light most favorable to his client. Such a characterization might not necessarily represent the issues important to the district in this matter."

Partners and employees of the Seltzer, Caplan firm have given more than $3725 to Dubick's campaign to oust Zimmerman from the board, according to campaign-disclosure records on file with the county Registrar of Voters.

The confluence of political money and lobbying clout has led Zimmerman to consider proposing new regulations requiring full disclosure of lobbying activities at the district. "Under the circumstances now coming to light, I think it would be very useful to have a lobbying regulation such as those that exist at the county and the city," Zimmerman said in an interview this week. "I am concerned when I learn that the superintendent's developer father-in-law and politically active law firms like Seltzer, Caplan are mixing in real estate transactions involving the school district. We need a lot more light in these areas."

Another element of intrigue involves the unknown identity of the individuals who have an ownership in the property. Until a year ago, according to county records, Copley Newspapers, publisher of the Union-Tribune, which has used its editorial pages to attack Zimmerman, owned the 805/52 land outright. On March 16, 1999, the newspaper company transferred the property to West RNLN, a so-called "limited liability company." According to county records, a company called Western Devcon is the "managing member" of West RNLN. Michael Ibe is listed as president of Western Devcon.

Also recorded on March 16, 1999, was a $13 million trust deed against the property in favor of another limited-liability company called "RNLN 805/52." According to that firm's articles of organization, Ronald Neeley, a wealthy Del Mar real estate investor, is listed as the company's "agent for service."

In July 1998, Copley sold a 22.74 -acre parcel adjacent to the 805/52 site to the City of San Diego for $16 million. The land will be used for water-utility operations. And Sentre Partners, whose president Stephen Williams contributed $1000 to a hit piece against Zimmerman, has maintained a keen interest in the area. In a letter on Sentre letterhead dated May 14, 1999, to Larry Gardner of the city water department, executive J. Cole Francis attempted to get the city to purchase yet another parcel.

"As you are aware, we own a five-acre land parcel across the street from your site and Mike Ibe is the 25-acre property owner adjacent to your site," Francis wrote. "Mr. Ibe is pursuing a rezoning of his land to residential. Because our property is zoned for an office park development, we have concerns that this rezoning may adversely impact the value of our five-acre parcel."

Dawe, attorney for West RNLN, refused to identify the principals in the venture, though he said Copley retained no interest. Neeley and his wife Lucille, widely known in Del Mar and La Jolla social circles for hosting lavish parties on their sprawling 14-acre estate, have given a total of $1000 to Zimmerman's opponent Dubick, according to campaign-disclosure statements. A telephone call placed to Neeley at his RNLN offices in Mission Valley was referred to Dawe, who said he knew nothing of Neeley's campaign contributions to Dubick.

"It doesn't seem clear who the true owners of this land are," Zimmerman says. "We need full disclosure to the board and to the public of property ownership when the school district is involved in land transactions."

The road to the land controversy began about two years ago, when the school district was looking for a place to build its so-called Food Services Center, a huge central kitchen to prepare and distribute food to the district's cafeterias. Under the plan, 22 "cluster" kitchens at individual schools are to be closed. So-called "cook/chill" meals would be prepared and shipped from the Food Services Center at 40 degrees for later reheating. Eight acres was required to house the 100,000-square-foot building and support facilities, according to district plans.

In a memo to the school board dated December 1, 1998, school-district staffer Pat Zoller outlined three potential sites for the food-service center, including the then-Copley Newspapers-owned parcel in the northwest corner of Kearny Mesa, overlooking the I-805 and Highway 52 freeway interchange. The other two candidates were a location at the old General Dynamics Kearny Mesa site (in an office park now called San Diego Spectrum), and a site, called the Shawline/McGrath property, that consisted of 8.3 acres on Shawline Street at Ruffner Road. San Diego Spectrum had agreed to a negotiated sale, but both the Shawline owners and the Copley Newspapers, which then owned the Copley Drive property, refused to sell and would have to be taken by condemnation action. In Copley's case, according to the scenario then in place, only 8 acres of the 25-acre Copley parcel would be condemned.

Zoller and other staffers recommended that the Shawline site be chosen over Copley and Spectrum properties, based in large part on the cost of acquisition, according to her memo. "The estimate of 'worst-case' condemnation cost relative to the Shawline property is estimated at $800,000. The cost differential of the three sites, considering the estimated condemnation cost, still supports the Shawline/McGrath property as the most economical and best choice for the Food Services Center."

Things seemed so sure for the Shawline site that a memo was drafted on September 23, 1998, for consideration at an October 1998 school-board meeting to prepare the necessary environmental documents to purchase the Shawline site. But no action was taken then. Later, in a memo dated May 27, 1999, the staff would report that "extraordinary condemnation cost" of the Shawline site had gone up to $1.2 million and that the site had received city permits for another building.

In the meanwhile, Copley Newspapers transferred its 25-acre parcel, on March 16, 1999, to West RNLN for $12,994,000. And when, on July 2, 1999, school-district staffers wrote a letter to the new owners of the Copley property about the school district's idea to purchase an eight-acre portion of it for the district's Food Services Center, they got a chilly reception.

In a letter dated July 28, 1999, from Seltzer, Caplan's James Dawe to the school-district chief administrative officer Henry E. Hurley, Dawe recalled that he, Hurley, and Michael Ibe, the West RNLN principal, met "two or three months ago to discuss the school district's possible interest in the acquisition of approximately eight to nine acres of the property on Copley Place [sic] for development as a food distribution center." After that meeting, Dawe wrote, "Mr. Ibe requested his architect [to] analyze the potential impacts of the food distribution center on the balance of the property. Based upon such analysis, the owner has concluded that the District's proposed building would be incompatible with the development of the balance of the property."

Though the West RNLN group professed no interest in selling their land, as the spring of 1999 progressed, the district seemed to become more committed to purchasing the entire 20 acres of the West RNLN property rather than just the 8 acres said to be needed for the Food Services Center. Why a shift from 8 acres to the full 20 acres? Zimmerman points to internal school-district memos to support her assertion that Bersin's real estate development committee, run by his father-in-law, may have been responsible for the change.

Though there was not a public announcement of the formation of the real estate advisory panel, Bersin set up his so-called Real Estate Asset Work Group sometime last year. Zimmerman says she first learned of the existence of the committee in October 1999. Bersin had appointed Foster, along with developer Dene Oliver, retired attorney Lewis Silverberg, and William Jones, an ex-city councilman. The revelation sparked instant controversy among Bersin's critics because of the financial relationship that the superintendent enjoys with his father-in-law.

Bersin and Foster are partners in a general partnership called Otay Terminal, Ltd., which was formed shortly before Bersin became U.S. Attorney in 1993. According to Bersin's most recent financial-disclosure statement, the partnership owns four industrial properties scattered throughout the county, including one along the Mexican border near the Otay Mesa border crossing. Each of the properties, according to county records, is valued in excess of $2 million. Bersin also reports receiving in excess of $10,000 per year in income from the partnership.

Bersin's real estate work group made its first report to the district in November of 1999. One of the work group's key recommendations, according to a district memo, is that the district sell off to a developer the existing education center on Normal Street in University Heights. Using cash from that sale and the selling of other property, the district would build a new "administrative campus," most likely on a site the district owns on Cardinal Lane.

"The highest priority recommended by the [real estate] group...is to consolidate administrative functions currently housed in several locations around the district into one modern administrative headquarters campus," says a memo dated November 9, 1999, from school-district operations manager Henry Hurley to Bersin. "The group calculated that [by] selling the Education Center and the Mission Beach [school] sites, sufficient resources would be raised to fund the cost of the development of a new administrative headquarters and the relocation of needed warehouse space for supply and instructional materials distribution."

In order to carry out the plan, according to the November 9 memo, Bersin's real estate advisory committee concluded that warehouses adjacent to the school district's so-called Instructional Media Center on Cardinal Lane would have to be moved to another location, making way for the new "administrative campus."

Zimmerman says that may be why the district staff, including Bersin, is pushing so hard to buy the entire 25-acre West RNLN site and not just the 8-acre portion originally sought by the staff to build the Food Services Center. "The district should continue to pursue its land acquisition for the Food Services Center," the real estate committee's November memo says, "and will need to obtain suitable property for relocating the Instructional Materials and Supply Warehouse operations when the consolidation of district administration onto the Cardinal Lane property becomes a reality."

In a memo to the school board dated March 22, 2000, Bersin agreed with his father-in-law, listing "consolidation of administrative function into one administrative center (a new facility to be designed and constructed to complement and facilitate administrative and organizational structure)" as one of his primary objectives.

It's a conclusion with which Zimmerman vehemently disagrees.

"My list of priorities does not include a grand campus for an administrative center. We know it would cost a fortune," she says. "First, it's extra acres and extra money -- fantastic amounts of money to build it. That money is needed for acquiring land in neighborhoods where new schools are needed to alleviate overcrowding, such as mid-city and Scripps Ranch."

As for selling off the education-center site, Zimmerman says, "I don't think we need to move the ed center. It has nothing to do with teaching and learning in the classroom. I think we should hang on to all real assets. They can be kept and leased if not used for schools."

On September 28, 1999, six months after Copley sold the land to West RNLN for less than $13 million, the school district's appraisers concluded that the parcel was worth $16 million. What accounted for the price differential? According to the appraisers, during the first transaction -- which occurred after the school district had already expressed interest in buying eight acres of the site -- "Copley Press...had become an anxious seller. As a representative explained to us, they are not developers and strongly desired to be free of development concerns. When Michael Ibe's group approached Copley Press with a noncontingent all-cash offer, a short escrow, and a large nonrefundable earnest money check, Copley Press found themselves no longer willing to hold out for a higher price."

So, at least according to the appraiser, West RNLN and its unidentified principals had gotten themselves a deal. The school district was out of luck and would have to fork over at least another $3 million -- and the threat of much more, to be awarded by a jury at a condemnation trial -- above what the property had sold for just six months earlier.

When the matter came before the school board at its March 14 meeting, West RNLN was no longer opposed to the condemnation of its land. "We speak now in favor of your proposed resolution and most importantly proceed to obtain possession...as early as possible, so that we can mitigate the damage caused by the uncertainty surrounding the land use," testified David Dorne, an attorney from Seltzer, Caplan, representing RNLN on behalf of the motion to condemn.

Dorne even held out the prospect of a negotiated sale, perhaps at a premium, of a portion of the property in the event that the board's vote to condemn failed. "We would consider negotiations for a limited acquisition of the school site property as opposed to the considerable damage that would occur by delaying for perhaps another year while all of this went forward," Dorne testified. "I urge you to consider that in addition, when you take a portion of a property, you must take into account...the effect on the surrounding property. Those things would have to be considered, but the owner of the property would be willing to discuss the proposition."

But in an interview earlier this week, after a reporter began looking into the identity of RNLN's owners, RNLN attorney James Dawe said that his client's position had again changed. "Since Dorne was at the meeting, I believe there has been a meeting of the architects for the school district and the owners of the property, and we have determined that the 8 acres that was talked about also does not work with other pending projects [RNLN has planned for] the 21 acres. So on April 11, we want this burden lifted from the property."

He said he had contacted the school district last week to set up a meeting between RNLN principal Michael Ibe and several school-board members to explain RNLN's latest position, but that the board members declined. Zimmerman says she declined a meeting with Dawe and Ibe because "I thought it was an inappropriate contact with a boardmember by a party that had business pending before the board. I think the board's business should be done in public."

During the March 14 hearing, board member John deBeck questioned district administrative officer Henry Hurley about how the school district would come up with the $16 million to buy the entire acreage.

Mr. deBeck: So where is the cash coming from that uh, you're talking about.... The capital fund is, is awash with cash and it can do that?

Mr. Hurley: What we have been doing for a number of years is planning the capital program for the district from sources such as our developer fees where you accumulate it over a number of years. We have accumulated capital funds for district purposes.

Mr. deBeck: But we had in the past, I mean, over a number of years, we've had continuing problems with deferred maintenance...we had to do all that. There's still a lot of unfunded projects in the district that this money could be used for. Isn't that correct?

Mr. Hurley: As our long-range facilities plan indicates there's probably another billion dollars of needs that are still required by the district. However, as we looked at the priority of those capital needs, I would place the increased efficiency in the operations as a high priority to streamline and the cost savings in our district operations.

Mr. deBeck: As compared to, let's say, a new school?

Mr. Hurley: Yes, as compared to a new school.

Proponents of the plan, including Bersin and board member Sue Braun, a key Bersin ally, touted its merits on the basis of improved efficiency. Said Braun: "I would feel that we were missing the boat if we were limited to the eight acres because this was an opportunity for us to see the kinds of savings we saw when we did our energy-efficient changes, all the other streamlining and changes that we've made in the district. We have seen the wisdom of that and this was a chance for us to consolidate operations and not have people running all over the city and having to use all our closed school sites."

In an interview this week, deBeck said he will change his vote from opposition to one in favor of the purchase of the site at next week's school-board meeting. He says he has "cut a deal" that requires Bersin to sign off on the reopening of an elementary school in North Clairemont in exchange for his vote in favor of purchasing the West RNLN property.

deBeck says that he has long favored reopening Wiggin Elementary School at 4350 Mt. Everest Street, a former elementary school closed for lack of enrollment about eight years ago. It is currently used as a home-schooling academy run by the district.

Parents in the area want the school reopened for safety reasons, says deBeck, because students currently have to cross busy Balboa Avenue to attend Homes Elementary school. "They say they are losing kids who won't cross Balboa to private schools," says deBeck. But until now, district administrators had strongly opposed his overtures to reopen the school.

"Getting something in the current environment is very difficult for me and this is one case that I could use as leverage. I just said I would not vote for [the 25-acre Copley Drive property acquisition] unless I could get a school north of Balboa," says deBeck. "They agreed. Actually, it may have been something they might have done anyway, but that doesn't matter. I got it. I can't get into their heads about whether they had already decided they would do this anyway. I just wanted to make sure I had a commitment to get it.

"That doesn't mean I fully support the expenditure of all the money that it would take to completely build out the 20 acres at this time," deBeck adds. "I can see the need for combining district resources for economy. Whether [the Cardinal Lane site] became the education center, where people came and went a lot, I have a problem with it because it's on a dead-end street."

That leaves Zimmerman, who says she supports reopening the Wiggin school but remains opposed to the 20-acre land purchase and Bersin's plan to build a new "administrative campus."

Zimmerman says she resents the fact that the Wiggin school reopening is being held hostage to gain approval of the Kearny Mesa site acquisition. "I appreciate deBeck's effort to help people in Clairemont, but I don't think this kind of horse-trading should go on," she says of deBeck's deal. "If there's money in the capital fund for land banking 12 additional acres on Kearny Mesa," Zimmerman says, "there's money in the capital fund to reopen Wiggin to serve the people of Clairemont."

Neither Bersin nor his lieutenant, Henry Hurley, responded to phone calls placed to their offices.

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It's not easy to take on the likes of San Diego Unified School superintendent Alan Bersin. Subject of endless rounds of favorable coverage in the Union-Tribune and the darling of its editorial board, son-in-law of one of the city's most influential land owners, backed by millions of dollars from San Diego's political and business establishment, Bersin, an old college friend of President Bill Clinton's, gets his way on almost every issue that comes before the board of education. But two weeks ago, the juggernaut came to a sudden halt -- at least for the time being.

The subject of Bersin's disappointment was not his much-vaunted, controversial "Blueprint for Student Success," which, after an eight-hour, commotion-filled meeting, passed a bitterly divided Board of Education, 3-2. Instead, it was an obscure item to condemn 25 acres of land at Interstate 805 and Highway 52 for $16 million that came before the board just before the "Blueprint" ruckus. The item failed on a 3-2 affirmative vote because it did not garner the two-thirds majority vote required for passage.

The item had nothing to do with education, per se, but plenty to do with the school district's growing real estate empire, which many believe the former United States Attorney is anxious to develop on his way to a career in local politics and beyond. It was brought down by Bersin's chief nemesis on the board, Frances O'Neill Zimmerman, a La Jolla matron with an eye for the bottom line, who fears that the proposed condemnation is the first step in a wildly overpriced scheme -- as yet unknown to the public -- to assemble a multimillion-dollar "administrative campus" north of Interstate 8.

Zimmerman and fellow board member John deBeck voted against the plan, after she pulled it from the board's so-called "consent agenda," where it would have been approved without public scrutiny and board discussion.

Zimmerman points to a series of internal school-district memos, including one by Bersin himself, touting the idea and showing it was hatched by what Zimmerman says is a secretive real estate advisory committee run by Stanley E. Foster, a wealthy local developer who is Bersin's father-in-law. According to another school-district memo, the site Bersin now wants to purchase has turned out to be more expensive than the one originally recommended by district staff.

Though the plan has yet to be disclosed to the public, school-district memos show that Bersin and his developer father-in-law want to build a new "administrative campus" on Cardinal Lane off Highway 163 near Genessee. To do so, they would sell off the old administrative complex on Normal Street in University Heights to real estate developers. The district would also have to move the warehouses currently on the Cardinal Lane site; Bersin wants to acquire the 805/52 site by condemnation and move them there.

Development of the proposed administrative complex and its steep price tag, which Zimmerman argues would suck money away from new-school construction, should be carefully considered in public hearings before Bersin and his father-in-law's real estate committee proceed further with their expansion plans, she says.

Zimmerman says she is also concerned about the secretive nature of the proposal and that untoward influence by lobbyists and others may have been brought to bear in an attempt to sway the board and its staff in the condemnation matter. Zimmerman has been a critic of Bersin's real estate advisory committee ever since she first learned about it in October 1999. Her re-election bid has been opposed by Bersin, Foster, and their supporters in local real estate and business, who claim she is obstructing Bersin's school-reform plans.

Foster, along with his associates in San Diego real estate and individuals with a direct financial interest in the 805/52 land deal, have given more than $5000 to the campaign of Zimmerman's opponent, lawyer Julie Dubick. And a last-minute hit piece against Zimmerman, sent out the weekend before the March primary by an independent political committee calling itself "Citizens for School Reform," was financed in part by a $1000 contribution by Stephen Williams, president of Sentre Partners, the company that has had extensive real estate dealings regarding the office park in which the 805/52 property lies.

In addition, Dubick's law firm, Seltzer, Caplan, represents the owners of the 805/52 property in dealings with the school district. James Dawe, a partner in Seltzer, Caplan, said in an interview last week he'd had a personal conversation with a school-board member -- whom he declined to identify -- regarding his clients' pending business before the board. The school district itself has no laws requiring lobbyists to register or disclose their nonpublic contacts with board members, but Jennifer Hardy Seelicke, another Seltzer, Caplan lawyer, is registered by the City of San Diego as a lobbyist for the entity that currently owns the 805/52 property.

In a September 1, 1999, memo to the board of education, chief district administrative officer Henry Hurley warned board members that Dawe had been contacting district staff about the pending acquisition and might attempt to reach boardmembers to lobby them individually.

"Mr. Dawe communicated with Georgia Snodgrass from Business Services earlier this week," according to the memo. "Ms. Snodgrass informed Mr. Dawe that any decision by the district to consider imminent domain actions would require board approval. Given Mr. Dawe's previous letter to me and the nature of his phone conversation with Ms. Snodgrass, it would not surprise staff if Mr. Dawe contacts boardmembers directly.

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"Please understand that Mr. Dawe is representing his client's interests and may characterize the situation in the light most favorable to his client. Such a characterization might not necessarily represent the issues important to the district in this matter."

Partners and employees of the Seltzer, Caplan firm have given more than $3725 to Dubick's campaign to oust Zimmerman from the board, according to campaign-disclosure records on file with the county Registrar of Voters.

The confluence of political money and lobbying clout has led Zimmerman to consider proposing new regulations requiring full disclosure of lobbying activities at the district. "Under the circumstances now coming to light, I think it would be very useful to have a lobbying regulation such as those that exist at the county and the city," Zimmerman said in an interview this week. "I am concerned when I learn that the superintendent's developer father-in-law and politically active law firms like Seltzer, Caplan are mixing in real estate transactions involving the school district. We need a lot more light in these areas."

Another element of intrigue involves the unknown identity of the individuals who have an ownership in the property. Until a year ago, according to county records, Copley Newspapers, publisher of the Union-Tribune, which has used its editorial pages to attack Zimmerman, owned the 805/52 land outright. On March 16, 1999, the newspaper company transferred the property to West RNLN, a so-called "limited liability company." According to county records, a company called Western Devcon is the "managing member" of West RNLN. Michael Ibe is listed as president of Western Devcon.

Also recorded on March 16, 1999, was a $13 million trust deed against the property in favor of another limited-liability company called "RNLN 805/52." According to that firm's articles of organization, Ronald Neeley, a wealthy Del Mar real estate investor, is listed as the company's "agent for service."

In July 1998, Copley sold a 22.74 -acre parcel adjacent to the 805/52 site to the City of San Diego for $16 million. The land will be used for water-utility operations. And Sentre Partners, whose president Stephen Williams contributed $1000 to a hit piece against Zimmerman, has maintained a keen interest in the area. In a letter on Sentre letterhead dated May 14, 1999, to Larry Gardner of the city water department, executive J. Cole Francis attempted to get the city to purchase yet another parcel.

"As you are aware, we own a five-acre land parcel across the street from your site and Mike Ibe is the 25-acre property owner adjacent to your site," Francis wrote. "Mr. Ibe is pursuing a rezoning of his land to residential. Because our property is zoned for an office park development, we have concerns that this rezoning may adversely impact the value of our five-acre parcel."

Dawe, attorney for West RNLN, refused to identify the principals in the venture, though he said Copley retained no interest. Neeley and his wife Lucille, widely known in Del Mar and La Jolla social circles for hosting lavish parties on their sprawling 14-acre estate, have given a total of $1000 to Zimmerman's opponent Dubick, according to campaign-disclosure statements. A telephone call placed to Neeley at his RNLN offices in Mission Valley was referred to Dawe, who said he knew nothing of Neeley's campaign contributions to Dubick.

"It doesn't seem clear who the true owners of this land are," Zimmerman says. "We need full disclosure to the board and to the public of property ownership when the school district is involved in land transactions."

The road to the land controversy began about two years ago, when the school district was looking for a place to build its so-called Food Services Center, a huge central kitchen to prepare and distribute food to the district's cafeterias. Under the plan, 22 "cluster" kitchens at individual schools are to be closed. So-called "cook/chill" meals would be prepared and shipped from the Food Services Center at 40 degrees for later reheating. Eight acres was required to house the 100,000-square-foot building and support facilities, according to district plans.

In a memo to the school board dated December 1, 1998, school-district staffer Pat Zoller outlined three potential sites for the food-service center, including the then-Copley Newspapers-owned parcel in the northwest corner of Kearny Mesa, overlooking the I-805 and Highway 52 freeway interchange. The other two candidates were a location at the old General Dynamics Kearny Mesa site (in an office park now called San Diego Spectrum), and a site, called the Shawline/McGrath property, that consisted of 8.3 acres on Shawline Street at Ruffner Road. San Diego Spectrum had agreed to a negotiated sale, but both the Shawline owners and the Copley Newspapers, which then owned the Copley Drive property, refused to sell and would have to be taken by condemnation action. In Copley's case, according to the scenario then in place, only 8 acres of the 25-acre Copley parcel would be condemned.

Zoller and other staffers recommended that the Shawline site be chosen over Copley and Spectrum properties, based in large part on the cost of acquisition, according to her memo. "The estimate of 'worst-case' condemnation cost relative to the Shawline property is estimated at $800,000. The cost differential of the three sites, considering the estimated condemnation cost, still supports the Shawline/McGrath property as the most economical and best choice for the Food Services Center."

Things seemed so sure for the Shawline site that a memo was drafted on September 23, 1998, for consideration at an October 1998 school-board meeting to prepare the necessary environmental documents to purchase the Shawline site. But no action was taken then. Later, in a memo dated May 27, 1999, the staff would report that "extraordinary condemnation cost" of the Shawline site had gone up to $1.2 million and that the site had received city permits for another building.

In the meanwhile, Copley Newspapers transferred its 25-acre parcel, on March 16, 1999, to West RNLN for $12,994,000. And when, on July 2, 1999, school-district staffers wrote a letter to the new owners of the Copley property about the school district's idea to purchase an eight-acre portion of it for the district's Food Services Center, they got a chilly reception.

In a letter dated July 28, 1999, from Seltzer, Caplan's James Dawe to the school-district chief administrative officer Henry E. Hurley, Dawe recalled that he, Hurley, and Michael Ibe, the West RNLN principal, met "two or three months ago to discuss the school district's possible interest in the acquisition of approximately eight to nine acres of the property on Copley Place [sic] for development as a food distribution center." After that meeting, Dawe wrote, "Mr. Ibe requested his architect [to] analyze the potential impacts of the food distribution center on the balance of the property. Based upon such analysis, the owner has concluded that the District's proposed building would be incompatible with the development of the balance of the property."

Though the West RNLN group professed no interest in selling their land, as the spring of 1999 progressed, the district seemed to become more committed to purchasing the entire 20 acres of the West RNLN property rather than just the 8 acres said to be needed for the Food Services Center. Why a shift from 8 acres to the full 20 acres? Zimmerman points to internal school-district memos to support her assertion that Bersin's real estate development committee, run by his father-in-law, may have been responsible for the change.

Though there was not a public announcement of the formation of the real estate advisory panel, Bersin set up his so-called Real Estate Asset Work Group sometime last year. Zimmerman says she first learned of the existence of the committee in October 1999. Bersin had appointed Foster, along with developer Dene Oliver, retired attorney Lewis Silverberg, and William Jones, an ex-city councilman. The revelation sparked instant controversy among Bersin's critics because of the financial relationship that the superintendent enjoys with his father-in-law.

Bersin and Foster are partners in a general partnership called Otay Terminal, Ltd., which was formed shortly before Bersin became U.S. Attorney in 1993. According to Bersin's most recent financial-disclosure statement, the partnership owns four industrial properties scattered throughout the county, including one along the Mexican border near the Otay Mesa border crossing. Each of the properties, according to county records, is valued in excess of $2 million. Bersin also reports receiving in excess of $10,000 per year in income from the partnership.

Bersin's real estate work group made its first report to the district in November of 1999. One of the work group's key recommendations, according to a district memo, is that the district sell off to a developer the existing education center on Normal Street in University Heights. Using cash from that sale and the selling of other property, the district would build a new "administrative campus," most likely on a site the district owns on Cardinal Lane.

"The highest priority recommended by the [real estate] group...is to consolidate administrative functions currently housed in several locations around the district into one modern administrative headquarters campus," says a memo dated November 9, 1999, from school-district operations manager Henry Hurley to Bersin. "The group calculated that [by] selling the Education Center and the Mission Beach [school] sites, sufficient resources would be raised to fund the cost of the development of a new administrative headquarters and the relocation of needed warehouse space for supply and instructional materials distribution."

In order to carry out the plan, according to the November 9 memo, Bersin's real estate advisory committee concluded that warehouses adjacent to the school district's so-called Instructional Media Center on Cardinal Lane would have to be moved to another location, making way for the new "administrative campus."

Zimmerman says that may be why the district staff, including Bersin, is pushing so hard to buy the entire 25-acre West RNLN site and not just the 8-acre portion originally sought by the staff to build the Food Services Center. "The district should continue to pursue its land acquisition for the Food Services Center," the real estate committee's November memo says, "and will need to obtain suitable property for relocating the Instructional Materials and Supply Warehouse operations when the consolidation of district administration onto the Cardinal Lane property becomes a reality."

In a memo to the school board dated March 22, 2000, Bersin agreed with his father-in-law, listing "consolidation of administrative function into one administrative center (a new facility to be designed and constructed to complement and facilitate administrative and organizational structure)" as one of his primary objectives.

It's a conclusion with which Zimmerman vehemently disagrees.

"My list of priorities does not include a grand campus for an administrative center. We know it would cost a fortune," she says. "First, it's extra acres and extra money -- fantastic amounts of money to build it. That money is needed for acquiring land in neighborhoods where new schools are needed to alleviate overcrowding, such as mid-city and Scripps Ranch."

As for selling off the education-center site, Zimmerman says, "I don't think we need to move the ed center. It has nothing to do with teaching and learning in the classroom. I think we should hang on to all real assets. They can be kept and leased if not used for schools."

On September 28, 1999, six months after Copley sold the land to West RNLN for less than $13 million, the school district's appraisers concluded that the parcel was worth $16 million. What accounted for the price differential? According to the appraisers, during the first transaction -- which occurred after the school district had already expressed interest in buying eight acres of the site -- "Copley Press...had become an anxious seller. As a representative explained to us, they are not developers and strongly desired to be free of development concerns. When Michael Ibe's group approached Copley Press with a noncontingent all-cash offer, a short escrow, and a large nonrefundable earnest money check, Copley Press found themselves no longer willing to hold out for a higher price."

So, at least according to the appraiser, West RNLN and its unidentified principals had gotten themselves a deal. The school district was out of luck and would have to fork over at least another $3 million -- and the threat of much more, to be awarded by a jury at a condemnation trial -- above what the property had sold for just six months earlier.

When the matter came before the school board at its March 14 meeting, West RNLN was no longer opposed to the condemnation of its land. "We speak now in favor of your proposed resolution and most importantly proceed to obtain possession...as early as possible, so that we can mitigate the damage caused by the uncertainty surrounding the land use," testified David Dorne, an attorney from Seltzer, Caplan, representing RNLN on behalf of the motion to condemn.

Dorne even held out the prospect of a negotiated sale, perhaps at a premium, of a portion of the property in the event that the board's vote to condemn failed. "We would consider negotiations for a limited acquisition of the school site property as opposed to the considerable damage that would occur by delaying for perhaps another year while all of this went forward," Dorne testified. "I urge you to consider that in addition, when you take a portion of a property, you must take into account...the effect on the surrounding property. Those things would have to be considered, but the owner of the property would be willing to discuss the proposition."

But in an interview earlier this week, after a reporter began looking into the identity of RNLN's owners, RNLN attorney James Dawe said that his client's position had again changed. "Since Dorne was at the meeting, I believe there has been a meeting of the architects for the school district and the owners of the property, and we have determined that the 8 acres that was talked about also does not work with other pending projects [RNLN has planned for] the 21 acres. So on April 11, we want this burden lifted from the property."

He said he had contacted the school district last week to set up a meeting between RNLN principal Michael Ibe and several school-board members to explain RNLN's latest position, but that the board members declined. Zimmerman says she declined a meeting with Dawe and Ibe because "I thought it was an inappropriate contact with a boardmember by a party that had business pending before the board. I think the board's business should be done in public."

During the March 14 hearing, board member John deBeck questioned district administrative officer Henry Hurley about how the school district would come up with the $16 million to buy the entire acreage.

Mr. deBeck: So where is the cash coming from that uh, you're talking about.... The capital fund is, is awash with cash and it can do that?

Mr. Hurley: What we have been doing for a number of years is planning the capital program for the district from sources such as our developer fees where you accumulate it over a number of years. We have accumulated capital funds for district purposes.

Mr. deBeck: But we had in the past, I mean, over a number of years, we've had continuing problems with deferred maintenance...we had to do all that. There's still a lot of unfunded projects in the district that this money could be used for. Isn't that correct?

Mr. Hurley: As our long-range facilities plan indicates there's probably another billion dollars of needs that are still required by the district. However, as we looked at the priority of those capital needs, I would place the increased efficiency in the operations as a high priority to streamline and the cost savings in our district operations.

Mr. deBeck: As compared to, let's say, a new school?

Mr. Hurley: Yes, as compared to a new school.

Proponents of the plan, including Bersin and board member Sue Braun, a key Bersin ally, touted its merits on the basis of improved efficiency. Said Braun: "I would feel that we were missing the boat if we were limited to the eight acres because this was an opportunity for us to see the kinds of savings we saw when we did our energy-efficient changes, all the other streamlining and changes that we've made in the district. We have seen the wisdom of that and this was a chance for us to consolidate operations and not have people running all over the city and having to use all our closed school sites."

In an interview this week, deBeck said he will change his vote from opposition to one in favor of the purchase of the site at next week's school-board meeting. He says he has "cut a deal" that requires Bersin to sign off on the reopening of an elementary school in North Clairemont in exchange for his vote in favor of purchasing the West RNLN property.

deBeck says that he has long favored reopening Wiggin Elementary School at 4350 Mt. Everest Street, a former elementary school closed for lack of enrollment about eight years ago. It is currently used as a home-schooling academy run by the district.

Parents in the area want the school reopened for safety reasons, says deBeck, because students currently have to cross busy Balboa Avenue to attend Homes Elementary school. "They say they are losing kids who won't cross Balboa to private schools," says deBeck. But until now, district administrators had strongly opposed his overtures to reopen the school.

"Getting something in the current environment is very difficult for me and this is one case that I could use as leverage. I just said I would not vote for [the 25-acre Copley Drive property acquisition] unless I could get a school north of Balboa," says deBeck. "They agreed. Actually, it may have been something they might have done anyway, but that doesn't matter. I got it. I can't get into their heads about whether they had already decided they would do this anyway. I just wanted to make sure I had a commitment to get it.

"That doesn't mean I fully support the expenditure of all the money that it would take to completely build out the 20 acres at this time," deBeck adds. "I can see the need for combining district resources for economy. Whether [the Cardinal Lane site] became the education center, where people came and went a lot, I have a problem with it because it's on a dead-end street."

That leaves Zimmerman, who says she supports reopening the Wiggin school but remains opposed to the 20-acre land purchase and Bersin's plan to build a new "administrative campus."

Zimmerman says she resents the fact that the Wiggin school reopening is being held hostage to gain approval of the Kearny Mesa site acquisition. "I appreciate deBeck's effort to help people in Clairemont, but I don't think this kind of horse-trading should go on," she says of deBeck's deal. "If there's money in the capital fund for land banking 12 additional acres on Kearny Mesa," Zimmerman says, "there's money in the capital fund to reopen Wiggin to serve the people of Clairemont."

Neither Bersin nor his lieutenant, Henry Hurley, responded to phone calls placed to their offices.

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