Tuesday, August 9, 2016
[Merced County] Grand jury: Los Banos Unified circumvented safety approval for Creekside Junior High
An annual report detailing the Merced County Civil Grand Jury’s investigation into the acquisition of the new Creekside Junior High School revealed that Los Banos Unified School District didn’t follow protocol with county agencies.
The investigation also suggested safety issues may exist after the school district decided to locate and purchase the land for the middle school at 1401 Prairie Springs Drive near Los Banos Municipal Airport.
The school district’s acquisition of land for Creekside was one of nine investigations across the county conducted by the grand jury this year.
The investigation found that the school district, on advice of district attorneys, used an interpretation of California Government Code Section 65402(c) to “override” other governing bodies and build on the site. That meant bypassing steps put in place by state public utilities and education codes that ensure safety reviews on such parcels of land by the Airport Land Use Commission, or ALUC.
The grand jury also was concerned with the school district’s response to not following procedure.
“When asked why LBUSD chose to go ahead with this purchase/construction and circumvent the proper established procedures, LBUSD’s response was ‘well next time we will follow the Public Utilities Codes’ that pertain to selection of school sites,” according to the report.
The nonbinding grand jury report recommended the school district, in its student registration documents, include a clause stating the school is located in Airport Zone C.
It also recommended that school district leadership follow state codes when selecting future school sites, and for the district to be more proactive and informative when communicating to the public.
Board President Anthony Parreira declined comment on the report Wednesday, adding that the district has asked attorneys to review it.
According to the grand jury report, on May 20, 2013, the school district wrote to the California Department of Education stating intent to build a new school at the current location.
About a month later, after the school district purchased the property, Caltrans’ Division of Aeronautics pointed out safety and noise concerns that “should give pause for approval of this proposed school site.” It recommended finding alternatives, but it didn’t recommend against the current site.
However, school district officials claimed that attorneys advised them the district could proceed because no one officially denied the site.
The school district held a meeting with ALUC on Sept. 19, 2013, in which ALUC said it couldn’t approve a school to be built in the airport zone, per code. ALUC believed the issue was settled. Third-party school construction experts concurred with ALUC during interviews with the grand jury.
The school district could still legally overrule ALUC by holding a special hearing and vote. But the school district never held the hearing, on advice of attorneys, instead passing a resolution in December stating it has the authority to override ALUC.
That resolution was never sent to ALUC or Caltrans. So when ALUC learned that the school district went forward with construction in spring 2015, it tried to inform the school district that issues still remained.
But school district lawyers continued to advise that the school district can overrule ALUC.
July 27, 2016
By Vikaas Shanker