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.
4474 El Cajon Boulevard, Talmadge
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.”
Hoover High football
Footage of the field at Hoover High, cheerleading and football practice, and a chat with some players.
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.
Proposition S, also known as the “School Repair and Safety Measure,” was approved by 68 percent of voters in November 2008. The estimated $2.1 billion in revenues were meant to pay for repairs to “outdated student restrooms, deteriorated plumbing and roofs; upgrading career/vocational classrooms and labs; providing up-to-date classroom technology; improving school safety and security, and replacing dilapidated portable classrooms” among other items.
The 97-page ballot measure listed plans for improvement projects at specific school sites. Hoover High School was among the dozens of schools listed. Missing from the measure, however, was a single mention of stadium lighting.
After being questioned about the use of Prop S funds, the district pointed to a brief passage on page 96, the second-to-last page. At the bottom of the paragraph appeared “field lighting” in cases that are “incidental to and necessary for the completion of the listed projects.”
On November 25, 2008, three weeks after voters approved Proposition S, officials from San Diego Unified announced they planned to upgrade the athletic facilities at Hoover High in order to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, including the installation of four 90- and 100-foot-tall light towers.
Neighbors living directly behind the field acted fast, contacting the district and attending meetings on the project. Their initial concerns focused on the number of night events and whether the school would rent the field to adult sports leagues. The thinking: more night events and more non-school events meant more traffic, more trash, more noise, and way more light in their neighborhood.
In April 2009, then-superintendent Terry Grier committed to holding no more than 15 nighttime events at Hoover’s new and improved football stadium as well as promising the “facility will not be rented out for non-school uses such as adult soccer leagues.”
Meanwhile, the district continued to move forward with the necessary environmental review. During that process, district staff ignored the objections from residents, and came to the conclusion that the project had no significant environmental impacts. By doing so, they would not have to spend money on an expensive environmental impact report to identify potential impacts. Instead, district staff opted for a less onerous route; preparing a mitigated negative declaration.
On January 11, 2011, school-board members deemed the environmental report sufficient and approved the use of Proposition S funds to pay for upgrading Hoover High School’s athletic field.
During that meeting, then-superintendent Grier cautioned against the use of funds for athletic-field improvements. “Every dollar we spend on this is a dollar we can’t use on air-conditioning, or fields, or classrooms, or library upgrades, or roofs, or all that.”
Board members were undeterred. They discussed the idea that new and improved fields might provide a much-needed revenue stream in a budget-strapped time.
Three months after the approval, as the lights were going up, residents filed a lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court, alleging San Diego Unified skirted environmental review and knowingly misinterpreted the bond. In October 2011, Superior Court judge Timothy Taylor ruled in favor of the school district. In his judgment, Taylor justified the expenditure: “To the players, coaches, fans, and families of the players of Hoover’s sports teams, what the district plans to do is an improvement.... Another stated goal was to ‘improve safety/security.’ Certainly it could be argued that having the field lit rather than dark does precisely that.”
Residents immediately appealed the judge’s decision.
As the case made its way through the appellate court, the school district completed the project. The lights were installed in time for Hoover’s 2012/2013 school year. District staff also began preliminary work on similar projects at Crawford and Point Loma high schools.
As was the case at Hoover, residents living near both schools objected to the lights and to using Proposition S funding. Members of the El Cerrito Community Council, the community next to Crawford High, opposed the proposal. They sent a letter to school-board members in March 2012, requesting planners “remove stadium lights from plans for the Crawford High School football field because of expected impacts to the surrounding residential neighborhood homes from noise, light pollution, security issues, traffic, and parking congestion.”
Residents in Point Loma also came together to defeat the upgrades and lights. They launched a website, calling it “Pro-Point Loma: Save our Neighborhood.” The group accused the district of commercializing schools at the expense of residents in order to generate revenue.
As this was occurring, in February 2013, the appellate court’s three-judge panel disagreed with Judge Taylor’s ruling and sided with the residents. In the ruling, judges agreed that stadium lights are not “incidental and necessary” to the athletic-field improvements. The court also found that the district failed to conduct a complete environmental report and needed to consider parking and actual attendance during events. Attorneys for San Diego Unified requested the case be turned over to the California Supreme Court. Their request was denied and the appellate court’s decision was sent to Judge Taylor to give the final ruling, albeit reluctantly.
“This was an illegally approved project and you can’t do it anymore,” said Taylor during the September 20 hearing. “You can’t have the field lit until it is properly approved. I understand that you would like to keep it going for the kids. So would I. Believe me, the last thing I want to do is foul up the football season and, therefore, the soccer season and all the other teams that play on that field. But you have to look at it from the perspective of the plaintiffs.... They don’t want stadium lights at all. They wanted me to order them taken down in the middle of the school year. I’m not going to do that. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to use the lights while there’s no valid approval for the building of the lights.
“I feel badly about this for the kids, I do, particularly the seniors. Because they probably had the expectation of Homecoming and Senior Night and so forth that it was going to be Friday Night Lights. It’s not going to be that way.”
Four days before the October 11 homecoming game, originally scheduled as a night game, a group of seniors sat down to talk about the decision and how they felt about the decision.
“With the lights and night games, it allowed our parents to come to the games and support us and the football players,” said senior and captain of the cheerleading squad Tanicha Roseme. “They made it more of an experience. Now, most of our parents won’t be able to come support us. We work so hard during the year and for our parents not to be able to see that is really hard.”
Edward Phung, a junior, plays alto saxophone and trombone for the school band. Phung said the lights and night games helped boost school spirit. He remembers playing before the lights went up.
“The lights helped pump up the band. During the day, we are tired, and when we have that break [between school and night games] it just gets the spirit up. It’s a high-school tradition, and almost every other high school has them. Why not us? We are the second-oldest school in this district. Now, it’s just going to go back to how it was in our freshman year. You’d think it would get better, not worse, as you get older.”
Unfortunately for neighbors, students, teachers, and staff members at Hoover, the intricacies of school-bond measures and environmental impact reports aren’t easily explained. The result is a rift in the community and the school next door.
Senior Emmy Son blames the neighbors. “I feel like the community should support us in what we do. This is our future, the students here now and those who will come here in the future. Neighbors should understand that and support us. After all, this school has been here for, like, 80-some years.”
Roseme sees both sides. “The school district used some of that money to go to the lights, and that’s why the judge ruled against us. We did our research. We didn’t want to be ignorant, like, blaming the neighbors; we wanted to know the real reason, like, the money being spent in the wrong way. We feel it was unfair to us because we didn’t make that decision but we have to pay for it.”
While night games are a thing of the past for students at Hoover, they appear to be in the future for Crawford students and those attending Point Loma High.
Despite having known the appellate court’s decision since March of this year, the district has marched forward with proposals at Crawford and Point Loma. Back on August 17, district employees were at Crawford’s football field to meet with neighbors. Tethered 80-feet in the air were six balloons, there to demonstrate the height of the light towers. “I find it inconceivable they are moving forward with this,” said El Cerrito resident Mark Solomon. “You’d think, considering the court’s decision, they would entertain some other idea, one that neighbors are in agreement with. I suggested retractable lighting so the huge poles wouldn’t have to be out there the whole time. I go to other fields and see fields with lights that are 40-to-50 feet tall and they are plenty bright enough — shorter poles and more of them. Instead, the district wants 80-foot towers. It doesn’t make sense.”
Across the city, in Point Loma, similar complaints are being lodged. During community meetings, some residents have claimed that the school is planning on entering into long-term contracts to rent the field to outside organizations such as the Rock Church. They say the push for stadium lighting is all about money.
“...The Point Loma High School site is already dramatically overdeveloped, with nearly 2,000 students squeezed onto a 10.1 acre site, more than 500% of the maximum density allowable for new high school sites. Additional nighttime use of the school site (whether for generating revenue or for school events and practices) will occur at the expense of the quality of life for the neighborhood and at the expense of student driver and pedestrian safety,” reads the website from the Pro-Point Loma group.
None of the members would agree to go on the record to discuss their concerns.
San Diego Unified trustee Scott Barnett is one of the five members on the board who supported bringing stadium lighting to local high schools. And while he supports updating athletic fields, he says he understands, and in some cases, agrees with their concerns.
“I don’t believe we have been good neighbors,” Barnett said during an October 10 phone interview. “We haven’t done enough to mitigate some of the current impacts. That being said, as trustees we have a responsibility not just to our kids but to the broader community, so they, too, can have access to sporting events like soccer, lacrosse, and football leagues, all sports. There’s great difficulty trying to get field space, especially fields with lights, and that’s why this is so critical.”
Barnett says the district should try to mitigate any impacts. However, he feels some of the opponents are only trying to scare other community members to get them involved. One scare tactic, says Barnett, is a claim from members of the Pro-Point Loma group who are saying that the school has entered or is considering entering into a contract with the Rock Church, granting them access to use the fields for large-scale events.
“This just isn’t true,” says Barnett. “Unfortunately, some project opponents have engaged in campaigns to frighten and mislead people. Some have hired PR firms to print mailers. I have gone on the record and stated that school sites should become 24-hour centers for the community. That means schools should be seen as centers for learning, for computers, pools, and libraries. I have never said that we should rent out, or commercialize, these schools just to make money. Every school site is different and we need to maximize each site.
Barnett believes the district should consider closing off residential streets in an effort to minimize traffic and parking impacts. He also proposes satellite parking locations, and establishing a protocol to follow in order to be granted access to school fields.
“There are those that will die on the sword to prevent lights from going in. We are doing full environmental impact reports on the lights. Doing so is completely over what is required and necessary, and we are going to that to address every single possible impact.”
As for the ruling that the district violated the terms of the bond by using Prop S funds for stadium lighting, Barnett calls the decision “foolhardy.”
“I am astonished that, considering the level of detail — nearly 100 pages of itemized projects — they could come to that decision. These people complain about using money for lights but spending money on elaborate environmental impact reports is just as harmful to taxpayers. The kids get hurt, it hurts the entire community across the board.”
Hoover lineman Austin Brown and his teammates are trying to put a positive spin on the situation. “At the end of the day, we are just playing for wins. We all love the game and the joy of playing. The energy level is just not the same [without lights]. But, either way, we are still going to play. This is a little adversity, and I think this might even help our team, bring us even closer.”