Based on an article in this Friday’s Ojai Valley News, you might think there was a near riot between the Ojai City Council and the OUSD Board of Education. While the story is largely accurate, the description of threats being hurled is, with respect, literary license. Still, the discussion was robust and at times loud. As usual, when the facts are laid out, it’s not as dramatic as it sounded in the paper.
THE BACKSTORY: For years, the OUSD has been meeting to discuss what to do with district facilities in the face of declining enrollment. Beginning in 2015, a dedicated group of concerns parents and residents began meeting to discuss whether to close any of our schools. Known as the 7/11 Committee, you can find all their notes and research material here.
After reviewing multiple voluminous reports and analyses, the committee ultimately concluded that the OUSD should surplus the downtown property, consolidate its operations into the remaining properties, and use the downtown property to generate desperately needed operations funding for the district.
The OUSD Board further deliberated over the committee’s recommendations, and ultimately agreed that we should preserve our neighborhood schools as long as economically possible. As a result of that decision, the Board voted to leave all neighborhood elementary schools open.
The Board also agreed with the committee recommendation to consider leasing the district’s downtown property to generate revenue for the district. The Board was unanimous that it did not want to sell this important heritage property.
The first condition to talking to developers about the property was to offer it first to specific civic entities, including the City of Ojai, essentially giving them first right of refusal to negotiate.
The law says that the entities had 60 days to indicate their interest. If anyone responded, we were required by law to engage in at least 90 days of good faith negotiation to attempt to reach a deal. Those 90 days can be extended if there is a good reason to continue negotiations.
The City of Ojai sent us a letter saying they wanted to negotiate to lease the property. Though they have requested a meeting to discuss an offer, no offer has been put forward formally or informally and there is no indication that one is forthcoming. The city manager has reported that acquisition of the property is not in the City’s general plan, and there are no funds currently budgeted or available for the acquisition.
Because this is a heritage property, it’s not surprising that the Historical Preservation Commission was concerned about the property. When we began our discussions in 2015, they began their campaign to impose historical designation on the property. The OUSD Board knew of this in 2015 and discussed it with the City Council at their historic joint meeting at that time. As was quoted during Friday’s meeting, the OUSD Board was told that it is rare that a historical designation is imposed on a property without the owner’s request…reasonable because, despite all protestations to the contrary, such a designation does create restrictions on the use of the property.
Members of the Council and the city’s attorney all sought to reassure the OUSD saying that the city would not impose such a designation on OUSD unilaterally. The agenda for Friday’s City Council meeting contained an item to do just that.
WHAT HAPPENED: What upset the OUSD Board members is that the move to designate came as a surprise to them. It now appears that the city may have sent OUSD staff a copy of the notice we read in the paper, but there was no explanation of what was happening, no offer to discuss outside the constraints of the three-minute public comment limit, and no explanation as to why this was happening this way now, despite Council’s prior assurances.
The only reason legal action was mentioned was as something to avoid. The OUSD Board members pleaded with the City Council to delay action on the item, both because we felt we were given poor notice, and because we were assured that we would have conversation about this before it was imposed on us. Some Board members felt that there were alternatives possible to protect the vital elements of the property without discouraging potential developers by a blanket imposition of historical status. Other Board members disagreed with the HPC’s reasoning.
It’s always regrettable when voices are raised, but both the Board and the Council take their responsibilities very seriously. And when protecting things as important as student education and civic history, emotions can run high. Couple that with some Board members feeling blindsided, and its not surprising that voices were raised.
WHAT NOW: Ultimately, the Council voted to return to matter to the Historical Preservation Commission for reconsideration with input from the OUSD. We will have to wait and see whether the HPC changes their recommendation to designate the entire 8+ acres (including the bushes, trees, bus parking lot, and gas pumps) and reduces their recommendation to what city staff supported, or something different.
I still hope to attend a joint meeting of the Board and Council, with the HPC making its case, because I think this is too important to resolve in a regular Council meeting with its typical crowded agenda. At such a meeting, the City can also address whatever issues remain surrounding its potential bid to lease the property itself.
Assuming the City does not lease the property, and we should get that clarification as quickly as possible, we can then partner with the City to strategize how to attract the right developer with the right plan for the heart of our downtown. Done correctly, the repurposing of the OUSD downtown property will generate much needed revenue for the schools to support paying a living wage to teachers, and providing quality education for our kids, with resources not limited by our low enrollment, while at the same time energizing the downtown area and potentially providing valuable community resources.
BOTTOM LINE: Everyone cares about Ojai and its heritage, including the OUSD Board members. As Shelly Griffen said, “No one wants a Trump Tower on that property!” It’s a big ambitious endeavor. It will take all hands to make it work. It truly has the potential to affect Ojai for decades to come. That’s why it’s important to do it right. Our community has the right to expect us as elected leaders to set aside personal issues and cooperate and collaborate for the ultimate benefit of the entire Ojai Valley. That’s my intent.