Board meeting highlights student talent, property sale

There was a special treat at the Thursday, June 6 gathering of the Claremont Unified School District Board of Education when the Pledge of Allegiance was followed by a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” as performed by district’s Elementary Strings Orchestra.

The showcasing of student talent continued when, with a clinking of medals, a number of 4th through 6th graders stepped to the front to be honored for their success at the recent Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Math Field Day. Additionally receiving kudos was Math Field Day Jessica Jackman-Uy, a 5th grade teacher at Chaparral Elementary who coordinated the district’s participation in the event.

Congratulations were additionally given to members of the Claremont High School debate program who have qualified to attend the National Championship Speech and Debate tournament to be held in Birmingham, Alabama next week, followed by a laudatory presentation by CHS theater director Krista Carson Elhai.

Ms. Elhai took time to enumerate some of the achievements of her students such as the awards they took at the California State Thespian Festival held in Upland on March 22-24. A number of her students did so well in the festival they have now qualified for the International Thespian Festival, to be held at the University of Nebraska on June 24-29.

With 5 productions, a move to a new theater and its associated opening gala plus their annual F.O.O.T. auction and a sing-along with the cast of “Wicked,” Ms. Elhai and her thespians are wrapping up a dizzyingly busy school year. 

“I don’t even remember what musical we did last week,” Ms. Elhai laughed. “We’re very excited to be celebrating our 50th year in our new building that we never leave.”

The board next bid farewell to 2 high school students, Carolyn Bird of Claremont High School and Aimee Orcasitas of San Antonio High School,

who had joined the school board at meetings in order to report on doings at schools throughout the district.

“Please don’t think this has to be your last board meeting,” board member Steven Llanusa joked. “You’re welcome any time.”

During the public comment period, Freeman Allen, co-chair of Sustainable Claremont, stepped up to the podium to appeal to the board to renew the position of Community Garden Coordinator. Sustainable Claremont values the position so much it hopes to contribute $2,000 to help finance the job, up from $1,500 last year, he said.

“I see these gardens as an outdoor laboratory that is absolutely crucial in giving students real-world lessons in what nature is like,” said Mr. Allen, a retired Pomona College chemistry professor. 

For the last year, the district has employed Dessa D’Aquila at 25 hours per week as the CUSD garden coordinator. Along with helping oversee gardens at various schools, including San Antonio’s Food Justice Program and the  new biomes project at Oakmont School, which has staff, kids and volunteers cultivating the landscapes of 4 California native landscapes, including desert, grassland, shrub land and forest.

Much of Ms. D’Aquila’s time, she explained prior to the meeting, is spent connecting teachers hoping to embark on gardening projects with staff and students from local colleges as well as community members that hope to donate time or resources to Claremont schools.

“As we go forward, we’re going to have a much more successful program if we have someone to coordinate it,” Mr. Allen said.

Board approves Service Center sale, disagrees on sale process

There were some moments of tension as the board prepared to vote on whether to approve the offer for the Service Center Property that D.R. Horton made at an auction held at the end of May. The homebuilder agreed to the district’s $7 million asking price, accompanied by a $10,000 deposit.

While the board and district at large seemed pleased with the results of the auction, Mr. Llanusa expressed chagrin the auction yielded no other conforming bids and no attendees other than D.R. Horton. It should be noted that there were 2 other bids submitted by company representatives before the auction, but one fell below the district’s price tag at $4.5 million and neither bid was accompanied by the required security deposit.

Mr. Llanusa noted he urged the board and the district to reach out to a number of real estate agencies prior to selling the Service Center Property, located at 700 Baseline Ave., in order to find the most motivated buyer. Instead, the district opted to use the services of Tierra Development, which helped CUSD promote and sell another property, 4.35 acres located at its former district offices. D.R. Horton also purchased the property for $6.2 million.

“I am hugely disappointed,” Mr. Llanusa said. “The district opted for expediency over efficacy. This is a Hobson’s choice—take it or leave it.”

“I’m sure [Tierra Development] reached out to hundreds of companies,” Lisa Shoemaker, assistant superintendent of business services, said. “It’s very common that we’d get mostly nonconforming bids.”

Jeff Stark asserted the bid received from D.R. Horton was twice what people told the board and district personnel the Service Center property would be worth in 2006, at the height of the real estate market. The district benefited from relying on experts, he emphasized, such as the Surplus Property committee who made recommendations as to the sale of the property and on a real estate company that had previously made good on its promise of netting the district the top-dollar amount for a property. If the district had set a lower price for the Service Center property, then it would perhaps have received many more bids. Mr. Stark noted the plan all along was to appeal to a big company with deep pockets.

“I think it’s important for the board to understand what our role is in this,” he said.

Bill Fox, former president of William Fox Homes Inc. in Ontario, is a member of the district’s Surplus Advisory Committee, also known as the 7-11 Committee. The committee is composed of volunteers with expertise in the real estate industry who donated many hours to helping the district sell its properties. Mr. Fox said he strongly objected to Mr. Llanusa’s assertion that work conducted by the 7-11 Committee and by the district was conducted using inferior methods this time around.

“I’m proud of what the committee has done,” he said. “I’m proud to be a resident of Claremont and I’m proud to be a part of the process.”

After the discussion, the board voted on whether or not to accept D.R. Horton’s offer for the Service Center property. Everyone on the 5-member board voted yes except for Mr. Llanusa, who cast the dissenting vote.

Escrow on the former district office property, on which D.R. Horton plans to build a 50-plus unit condominium development, will close “in the very near future,” Ms. Shoemaker said. That happened more quickly than the district expected, and, given that D.R. Horton has already jumped over many of the hurdles that would apply to an adjacent housing project, the Service Center property should close even more quickly, she projected.

—Sarah Torribio


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