Timing is critical as IUSD moves forward with plans for fifth comprehensive high school

If you build it they will come. And if you don’t build it, they will come.

That’s the reality facing IUSD’s facilities team as the district moves forward with plans to construct its fifth comprehensive high school near the northeast border of the Orange County Great Park.

Superintendent Terry Walker says the project’s timing is particularly critical: If IUSD is unable to open the campus in 2016, projections indicate that dramatic overcrowding would occur at Irvine, Northwood, University and Woodbridge high schools, as new residential developments are bringing new students — and lots of them.

Fortunately, the district and developer Heritage Fields El Toro, LLC, have already identified a suitable property and entered into contractual agreements. But a city official has expressed criticism of the location and is now seeking to reset the timeline by suggesting an alternative site, though none has been formally proposed.

In an interview this week, Walker stressed the importance of opening the district’s fifth comprehensive high school on time and sought to clarify a few facts about the escrowed property and the district’s position.

Here’s what the superintendent had to say specifically:

  • Without a new school in place by 2016, Irvine High would be required to house 2,556 students by 2016, up from this year’s enrollment of 1,856; Northwood High would expand to 2,932 students, up from 2,144; University would have to accommodate 2,867 students, up from 2,440; and Woodbridge High’s student population would grow to 2,674 from the current total of 2,458. Overcrowding at these sites has the potential to cause significant adverse implications for instruction, facilities and safety, including a spike in neighborhood traffic.
  • IUSD has been more than willing to evaluate alternate sites but so far none has been formally presented for consideration, and time is running out. In July 2011, the district entered into a mitigation agreement with Heritage Fields, and the two parties entered into a high school site purchase agreement the following month for the property commonly referred to as “Site A.” IUSD and Heritage’s contractual arrangements do allow for a substitution of property if the two sides agree to a different location, or if Site A fails to receive the required state approvals for the high school project. But again, nothing has been proposed.
  • Though one opponent of Site A has repeatedly pointed to the presence of the minimum-security James A. Musick Facility less than a mile away, Walker noted that the area is in the initial stages of development and will become a thriving new residential community. This is precisely why a high school campus must be in place sooner rather than later, he said. Meanwhile, IUSD has worked with the Irvine Police Department and other state and education agencies to ensure the viability and safety of the location.
  • Responding to a claim that a number of new homes in the new development will actually be in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, Walker noted that the location of IUSD’s fifth high school will not change that fact. IUSD students will attend schools in IUSD, and Saddleback Valley USD students will report to campuses in the Saddleback Valley district.
  • Walker said it may be the opinion of some that finding an alternative location for IUSD’s proposed new high school would yield the City much-needed funding for other endeavors. Indeed, there have been repeated references to $60 million in state funding that might be made available to the City. But Walker said it remains to be seen what, if any, financial benefit would be derived by the City should a new location be identified and approved.
  • As for alternative sites, Walker noted that IUSD would need to fully analyze the significant implications of any alternate proposal that might seek to place a school in the center of “The First Great Metropolitan Park of the 21st Century.” As publicized, the Orange County Great Park would draw hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the county and beyond. Though Walker said the district has confidence in its law enforcement partners to manage activity in and around this type of development, he said he would have “very serious safety concerns about building a school campus near the gateway to a heavily populated regional attraction that would need to be addressed.”
  • Lastly, the benefits of joint-use have been repeatedly touted in relation to an alternative site. Walker questioned whether this was a realistic expectation for a local school, given the Great Park’s billing as a county attraction.

“Will Irvine’s fifth high school be expected to open its doors to the general public to accommodate county and regional events, and how might that impact the safety of our students?”, the superintendent asked. “Again, to be able to evaluate these benefits, the Board of Education first needs to be presented with the specifics of such an arrangement to determine if they are aligned with the best interests of IUSD’s students.”

In an Aug. 29 letter addressed to Irvine Mayor Steven Choi and City Manager Sean Joyce, Walker urged “all parties to work together on behalf of the Irvine community with actions that are strategic, productive and transparent.”

“If the City and Heritage have an alternative site to consider, IUSD and our Board of Education will review the proposal in good faith — just as it has indicated it would do since 2011,” Walker wrote. “In the absence of a formal proposal and the mitigating factors outlined above, we urge you to demonstrate leadership to ensure that Irvine’s next comprehensive high school is ready to accommodate students by the fall of 2016.”