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OC Register: City, TUSD approve $78M plan for Tustin Legacy schools

by Brooke Edwards Staggs

TUSTIN – The city and Tustin Unified approved a $78 million plan to build a middle and high school while also ensuring Heritage Elementary will welcome its first students in fall 2016.

The arrangement marks a stark contrast from a few years ago, when the city and school district were duking it out in court over the delayed opening of Heritage Elementary.

It also signals an end to a years-long battle by neighborhood parents organized under Open Heritage Now, who cheered when the financing deal was approved at district offices Monday and City Council chambers Tuesday.

“It’s going to have such a big impact on so many families,” said Cathy Vallevieni, who helped spearhead the neighborhood movement.

Heritage Elementary was built four years ago at 15400 Lansdowne Road as the former Marine Corps Air Station transformed into the Tustin Legacy community. Home construction stalled, though, and the district said it didn’t have enough students to justify opening the $12 million campus. So Hillview High, a continuation school, adult students and administrators moved in.

The city sued TUSD in 2011 over the delay, though a judge ruled the district had the right to postpone the opening.

Meanwhile, 875 homeowners in the Columbus Square neighborhood paid more than $1 million in extra property taxes during the 2014-15 year to pay down the bond that built Heritage while sending their children to 39 schools throughout Orange County.

That will continue one more year. But Columbus Square families will get first priority to attend Heritage in 2016.

Nearly $6.6 million is dedicated to expanding Heritage Elementary’s capacity from 600 to 900 students by adding 12 classrooms, per the approved financing plan. Another $71.5 million will be used for site work and construction of a new magnet secondary school on Tustin Ranch Road at Valencia Avenue. The district is selecting an architect and hopes to start construction within five years, said Tony Soria, chief financial officer for TUSD.

Roughly half of that $78 million will come from city contributions and developer fees. The other half will come from bonds financed through a community facilities, or Mello-Roos, district in the works for future Tustin Legacy homes.

TUSD launched a Mello-Roos district in the spring that allowed for up to $75 million in bonds. Monday night, the board ditched that plan for one that allows for up to $85 million in bonds, which Soria said is needed to keep up with rising construction costs.Owners of future single-family homes in Tustin Legacy will now pay from $1,460 to $2,175 in extra taxes for up to 40 years, depending on the size of their home. That’s up from $1,325 to $2,050 under the previous plan.