Guest Commentary

How Long Does Castaic Have to Wait?
Jamie Castellanos Q&A

Sunday September 16, 2007

Question: Castaic residents are becoming more and more frustrated as plans for Castaic High School continue to be delayed. Do you understand their frustration?

Answer: I understand it quite clearly, but I think what the community at large has to understand is that it’s not in my control or in the control of the district. Right now SunCal is moving through the approval process. The control is between them and the county, meaning that the sooner SunCal responds to the concerns as raised in the EIR [Environmental Impact Report] by the county, then the sooner the county can act on it. I think people understand again that it’s really not in my control. I can only push so much on SunCal and so much on the county to get things done and to move the process quickly. But it’s moving at a snail’s pace, it’s very, very slow.

Question: The Hart District board first entered into an agreement with developer SunCal NorthLake LLC in November of 2003, which stated the developer would build a high school and a middle school along with the community of 3,900 new homes. Meanwhile, the NorthLake project still languishes in the planning stage and currently has been continued off calendar, which means they have not been assigned a date to reappear before the Planning Commission. Is the Hart District still hoping to build a new high school on this site?

Answer: Well, we have not abandoned the NorthLake site at this point. Yes, the plans are still to build there. However, we’ve also been out there in the newspaper and in the community letting people know that we are looking at other sites. It’s no secret we’ve looked at the Castaic Mesa site, off the 5 Freeway. It’s owned by Newhall Land and Farm. We’ve also made inquiries about the Gateway Sterling property, that’s over in the commerce section off the 126 and Commerce Road. We’ve also had some conversations with Paul Onufer, the owner of Ion property. So we’re looking at other alternatives in case the NorthLake project doesn’t go through.

Question: So, do you still feel that the NorthLake location is the best site?

Answer: Well, I think it’s the best site from the standpoint that, when we entered into the agreement with SunCal in 2003 as you mentioned, it’s called a mitigation agreement, in that as they build homes we have a community facilities district that we would develop, meaning that, as each home is built, we would get X amount of dollars back into our coffers to be able to defer the cost of the high school. I don’t think we can disassociate ourselves from NorthLake at this point right now, because the problem is if we do, and we go to another property, it’s a matter of the cash and how do we pay for the land? … We don’t have the cash reserves because we’re talking anywhere from $40 (million) to $60 million for another site. We don’t have that money to pay for it at this point. That’s our biggest issue at this time.

Question: Several other sites have been considered over the years, namely Hasley/Sloan Canyon, Castaic Mesa, Gateway Sterling and, most recently, the Ion property in the Sloan Canyon area. Are any of these locations still a possibility?

Answer: We’re still considering our options. But again, I want to emphasize that the biggest issue right now for us to go to another property, we would have to come up with that up-front cash to pay for the cost of land, and then the cost of construction of the school. … The community needs to understand that the Hasley/Sloan property, those 70 acres that our facilities foundation owns, that was originally the site for the high school … but there was a lot of outcry from that surrounding Castaic community against the site. They came to our board meetings and said they wanted it moved. And then we also had, I believe, Millie Brown, who was a representative of Supervisor Antonovich’s office, that also attended a board meeting and read a statement from the supervisor’s office, asking us to be good neighbors and look for another site. … So, to say a school could have been built by now – probably so, but again I think people forget that there was already a site purchased and ready to go, but because of pressure from the community around Castaic where the school was gong to be built and a request from the supervisor’s office to move it, it was moved elsewhere.

Question: Is Hasley/Sloan still a back-up site in case NorthLake doesn’t work out?

Answer: We still own it. Is it a realistic back-up? No. No, it’s not.

Question: So a high school will never be built there?

Answer: No, not at this point. No.

Question: College of the Canyons was able to get its Canyon Country campus ready for students in one year by starting out with modular buildings. Is that a possibility for Castaic High School?

Answer: Well, we’ve talked about that possibility actually, and the problem is we can’t do anything on that site until SunCal gets through the approval process, and the longer that hangs out, the longer it takes us to build the school. So our problem right now is the fact that this is a much bigger and complex problem than the College of the Canyons on Sierra Highway is.

Question: The original projection, when you first entered into the agreement with NorthLake, was 2007 for the school to be completed. Do you have another projection now?

Answer: Yeah, what’s been out there over the last year has been 2010, but I don’t think that’s at all realistic as we’re talking three years away, and we still haven’t gotten SunCal through the approval process. We have to go through DSA [Department of State Architects] and it takes about eighteen months to two years for construction. I would say a more realistic picture would probably be the 2011-2012 school year.

Question: What is the affect of having no high school in Castaic having on Valencia and West Ranch high schools, where Castaic students currently attend? Are these schools overcrowded, and how long can they support the extra students?

Answer: Well, when the board made the decision to go ahead and send the current eighth-graders and ninth-graders two years in a row to Valencia, and then the following two years to West Ranch, it was an effort to balance out the enrollment between the two schools. I would say that right now we have probably bought ourselves three, maybe four years at the outside, of time to deal with the issues. In fact, at the board meeting last night, there was an approval for two board members to work with me and staff to look at our growth issues and that would include Castaic High School.

Question: So will this new Ad Hoc Committee focus on Castaic?

Answer: That will be one of the primary focuses of the group, but we’re basically going to be looking at all our growth issues. … Right now, we have about 1,600 ninth- through twelfth-graders from Castaic going to, particularly Valencia and West Ranch for the most part. A few have offered to go to other schools. So we do have capacity in some of our schools right now, but not enough right now to house all of the kids that we project will be coming to us three to four years out. I think, definitely four years out, we will be overcapacity and be quite overcrowded, so we have to have something in place between now and four years out, whether it be a new school at NorthLake, or some other property or some other alternative. That’s why we asked two board members to join on this, because we want to be able to start that process now and determine where our direction is going to be.

Question: You mentioned that some Castaic residents were not supportive of the Hasley/Sloan site. Have they been supportive of the NorthLake development?

Answer: I think they have for the most part because it’s not in their backyard. It’s away from their properties. … I would say right now that what I was asked to do by the supervisor’s office was to go speak to the Castaic Town Council, the Westridge Town Council here on the other side of town in the Valencia area, to talk to them about getting support for Castaic High School, and I’ve done that. I even shared the demographic information with both town councils so they could see what the growth patterns would be like. I feel that I’ve done everything I’ve been asked to do by the county to try to make this happen, and I’ve attended both planning commission meetings in April and June, and that’s why we’re even looking at options right now, because, again, I need to have some kind of a back-up plan.

… I’m caught in the middle along with the district and, you know, we get the negative flack and press because we’re dragging our feet, when we’re not. I’ve done this budget. I don’t know what else I can do. You know, it’s really under the control of the county and SunCal, working together to get through the process quickly. I’ve been to the two hearings, and what I hear is the planning commission staff saying “SunCal hasn’t responded,” and SunCal says “we have responded but you have it on your desk and it’s just sitting there.” I don’t know who to believe. I don’t know where the truth is – somewhere in between. So we’re in the middle of it and we get Castaic residents and people saying “you’re not doing anything, you’re dragging your feet, you don’t care about Castaic.” Well, you know, that’s so far from the truth.

Question: In 2006, Castaic resident John Zaring founded Castaic United to Build a School (CUBS). Have you worked with his group and do you keep them updated on any Castaic High School progress?

Answer: The dates he has his CUBS meetings are Mondays, which are dates when I have a commitment. So I know Rob Gapper, my chief operations officer, has attended, I believe, two meetings – I could be wrong on that. I know Gloria Mercado-Fortine, one of the board members, and Dennis King, another board member, have also attended. I think what they try to do there is to give them a realistic picture, as I’ve shared with you, about what the real issues and facts are. … I did attend a couple meetings in the Castaic area last year when we were going through the decision to redirect the students from Castaic to Valencia High School, or the other options we were considering. But, no, I have not attended a meeting of the CUBS to date.

Question: In December 2006, Zaring said, “It’ll be easier to have peace in the Middle East than to build a high school in Castaic.” What is your response to that statement?

Answer: (Laughing) I remember that. Well, I guess there’s a degree or modicum of truth in it, because I have found that I, like them, have become very frustrated with the process. It’s moving incredibly slow. In April, as I mentioned earlier, I did attend the first Planning Commission meeting when SunCal went before them … I pleaded with the commission that we needed to move on this quickly, because we had students that needed to be housed. … I said, “I need your help to move this through.” So I did do that, but John is correct in the fact that it’s like trying to move a mountain by yourself. It’s an incredibly slow process.

Source: The Signal