"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Robert C. Lee, superintendent of the William S. Hart Union High School District. The interview was conducted Tuesday. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: How about those Vikings?
Lee: Well, (the) time has come. As I said earlier this year to my staff and the community, history is in the making in this year. And obviously on the gridiron the other night, Valencia made history.
Signal: Whom you were rooting for?
Lee: You know, I've always been attempting to be neutral and walking the fine line
Signal: Aww, c'mon
Lee: Who was I rooting for? I have a daughter who goes to Hart, so I guess I do have some loyalties more to Hart, but I was excited to see Valencia. And I know the quarterback's dad real well; he works for our district, and that was exciting.
Signal: Were you sitting on the Hart side?
Lee: No, I was on both sides. I do that most every game, but it was exciting it was energy, and to see the community and quite frankly hear how it had a residual effect, not only that night but up until even today.
Signal: Will Valencia going to go on to win CIF?
Lee: You know, Valencia stands a good chance. If they play the way they played the other night. They were definitely the best team. They're as good a team as I've seen play this year, and I've seen some of the better teams.
Signal: You had bomb threats last week at Canyon and Hart. What's the district's policy in that situation? Certainly you don't shut a school every time a kid phones in a bomb threat, or they'd do it every day.
Lee: That's right. And quite frankly, we and also COC had bomb threats this week, (and) we did not close. You really take each call as a single occurrence. You sit and determine, we have a process, a procedure that the caller who's receiving that goes through. There (are) certain things you listen for.
At Hart High School, quite frankly (when) the first two calls came in, we took them serious in the sense that they were a threat. We checked the most logical places on campus, found nothing, and then we said, "This is just another hoax." The first two calls were students. The second two calls, it was a male adult, very agitated.
Signal: A young adult?
Lee: No. Mature adult voice, according to the person (who) received the calls similar to, let's say, our voice. Very agitated, very annoyed that we were ignoring the earlier calls, and very threatening. And that obviously escalated our concern. So we did what we did; we evacuated the school as a precautionary measure.
Signal: Have any suspects been identified?
Lee: Have not. No. Have not. We know that COC, the previous Saturday night, had a call which was recorded by the police department, and we're obviously doing some checking with the people who receive the calls. And as I've said, we've had one school receive calls this week, similar to (last week), and we're following up on that. The police department is engaging, and if there is a pattern here, we hope that we can break it, and may the person understand what they're doing is harmful to kids not only their education, but also the interruption, the day-time. But if we catch them, we'll certainly go to the extent of taking (action).
Signal: Have you started recording calls now?
Lee: When we can, we do, yes.
Signal: Let's move on. You've identified a site for a school in Castaic, above Castaic Lake. What's the status?
Lee: Well, we have the site; we have an agreement with the homeowner-developer, SunCal; we have a grading plan that is going through the county process; we have an environmental review report that's going (through the) process currently; it will be out for hearing purposes probably within the next 30 days. We're moving forward, and obviously the one obstacle that the developer has is providing us with water, ultimately, when the school is graded and we build it.
Signal: SunCal seems to be having trouble getting approvals from the Newhall County Water District for its 4,000-home NorthLake development, but the water directors have said they'll approve hookups for new schools. Doesn't that mean you're in the clear?
Lee: Well, it means that the water is provided. It doesn't necessarily mean that the water will be there. I mean, you've got a virgin piece of soil right now that, as you mentioned, overlooks Castaic Lake. It has to have a water system built, and you're talking about a mega-million-dollar system that somebody has to build. Newhall County isn't going to build that; we're not going to build that. NorthLake is the developer, and they will build that to benefit their residential homes and ultimately the school. To say that water is available is a broad statement. Will water be tapped to the grading site ... whenever grading commences?
The other thing, the analogy I use is, someone could say to an entity that I will provide you water out in the middle of the desert, and you can go build there. Well, building in the middle of the desert, or building a high school in the middle of a hilltop, doesn't make any sense, quite frankly, because schools are an integral part of the community, and they need to be surrounded, as our existing schools are. That's the way it should be. It's a compatible relationship. Schools and homes, schools and communities go hand-in-hand. So for us to even attempt to think about building a school in the middle of nowhere doesn't make sense.
Signal: Your school site is in the middle of NorthLake, and you need the developer to pay for the pipe that brings you the water?
Lee: Pipe and storage. Pumping and ... all the infrastructure that's required, yes.
Signal: What would it cost to install it yourself?
Lee: Millions of dollars. It would be dollars spent that would be dollars that could be spent to build classrooms. And so you sit and say and the question there, again, (is), why would you build a school in the middle of an open area? If you knew future development was coming, that's one thing.
As an example, when the district, what, 12 years ago, built Valencia High School, at the time they built that, it was pretty much at the boundary of an industrial park. But we knew that residential development was going to encompass the area, and has now. ... We're very optimistic that the developer (SunCal) and Newhall County will and are in the process of negotiating and will work (out) a settlement ... for water.
Signal: Even without NorthLake, is there a need for a high school in Castaic with the existing population?
Lee: Absolutely. Today, I would say it's over 1,600 high school-age, grades 9-12, that come out of the Castaic area.
Signal: They now go to Valencia?
Lee: They go to Valencia and West Ranch.
Signal: So you'll build a new school and break up the emerging dynasty at Valencia?
Lee: Well, that is one of the possibilities. When you build new schools, big schools like Valencia come back to their normal size.
Signal: How has your timeline been delayed?
Lee: Our timeline, the only thing that is obviously an obstacle is water. Like I said earlier, the grading permit is moving forward, the EIR is moving forward, and as soon as those approvals are accepted, the developer is committed to come in there and start grading. They need water to grade, and obviously then we need water once the construction is going on.
At the same time, we have a planning committee that is working with the architect on the design and the applications for funding for the school site. That's all going on as planned, and with the intent that the school is going to be ready to build. We are on a time frame now they were supposed to be grading this fall, and obviously it is not. So if they commence grading in the spring or early summer, instead of opening the school in '07, we'll open it up in '08.
Signal: Folks in Castaic objected to an earlier plan to build a school in the rural Hasley-Sloan canyon area. You've still got property there, right?
Lee: Still an option.
Signal: An option if what?
Lee: If we knew that in the foreseeable future, NorthLake ... and the water district were not going to come to some agreement with regard to water services. We have to move on, having the school built in that area or someplace to accommodate the students. Because today, like I said, there (are) 1,600. Next year that 1,600 will become 1,800. The following year, you can just figure, it's a multiple, adding approximately 200 every year. So basically when we open the doors in '08, the school is being built for 2,400 or 2,600 students. It conceivably could be, if every Castaic student went there, it would be full the day we open it. And that's a challenge unto itself.
Signal: The SCV Facilities Foundation owns the Hasley-Sloan property. Why don't you tell us how that works? Isn't the purpose of the foundation to maximize the school construction money you get from the state?
Lee: First of all, the foundation does not build schools. The foundation was organized to acquire properties for the possibility of school sites. As we did with Golden Valley (High School), with a partner, with the city, in the acquisition of the property, building the road, building the school site and the sale of that property, quite frankly maximized where taxpayers in this community ended up with a $30-million-dollar-plus site for just the development costs, which is about $17 million. Which in today's market is an awful good venture.
Signal: Who is the foundation?
Lee: The foundation has five directors.
Signal: It's a nonprofit?
Signal: So it's not actually part of the Hart district?
Lee: No. There (are) seven members now. One is a member of the board of education; myself; Rory Livingston; Rick Patterson; Gary Condie; John Hassel; and Teresa Todd. They're all community members. They all have expertise in various areas and knowledge of real estate development and economics. They've been brought together for the purpose of benefiting the community, its school district, and obviously the taxpayers.
Signal: How does a land deal work? Does the nonprofit board borrow money from the school district and buy property?
Lee: That was the initial Golden Valley was they entered into a purchase agreement with the school district to purchase (land), and the district advanced payments to the foundation for the property it was going to buy. Those advance payments were used to develop the site, and then we're all credited back when the site was acquired.
Signal: The foundation buys raw land and entitles it, increasing the value?
Lee: Well, the Golden Valley property did not have to (be entitled). It was just zoned, and therein the values were significantly I mean, (the foundation) bought a piece of property for thousands of dollars per acre and sold it for hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre. So the economics on that were significant.
It has then taken the proceeds from the Golden Valley and the Hasley-Sloan site the foundation purchased that with its own revenues that are available for development. At the same time, the revenues from some of the residual properties from Golden Valley which is going through a sale now with a major developer those dollars will be made available to the school district (to) build a performing arts center at Canyon and build a performing arts center at Saugus, or help build.
Signal: Why doesn't the school district buy raw land itself?
Lee: Because the school district has to pay market value. And we'll only buy property that is developed because the state requires you can't just go out and buy a field of tumbleweeds. ... We are an agent of the state, and the state becomes a partner in the purchasing of it. The state is only going to purchase developed property, and so the only property that a school district can purchase are those basically that have been fully developed.
All the economics of buying it, from raw land, from developing it, go to the benefit of whoever is the developer. So if that was one of the major developers in the area as an example, when the school district bought Valencia (High School) from Newhall Land and Farm; when we bought Rio Norte (Junior High) from Newhall Land and Farm; whatever the initial price of the property was, and the developmental price, if there was any scale, any margin of economics in that, Newhall became the benefactor of that.
The developer now, in the case of Golden Valley, was the foundation. Now (the) foundation buys property at the low end, develops it at a high value, and this margin goes into the coffers of the school district, so it stays with the school district. Or the foundation in this case took part of it and purchased (another) option.
Signal: So the school district buys back the developed property and gets the state's 50-percent match based the higher dollar value. Even if the district could buy undeveloped land, it would get less out of the state.
Lee: And so our advantage in bringing the state into it as an agent at the max value is where we're at. And quite frankly that's what you even when developers were developing the property, you work with the developers so that they would maximize the value of that property. Therein you would get more dollars from the state.
Signal: Is the foundation involved in the site overlooking Castaic Lake?
Lee: It is not, no.
Signal: The school district would acquire a finished pad from SunCal?
Lee: Through its mitigation on the 3,600 (to) 3,800 homes the developmental agreement in lieu of fees will provide us a school site.
Signal: Will that be par for the course going forward, or will the foundation typically be involved?
Lee: It really depends on in this case, as we did with Rio Norte, we bought a piece of property on the perimeter, if you will, the boundaries of a developmental community. Such is the case with NorthLake if we go there. If we end up having to go and buy a piece of property that is not surrounded by a development, then the foundation conceivably could be a part of that.
Signal: So Golden Valley High School was different because it wasn't part of a development project. It was a case of the district going out and building a school on its own.
Lee: The real key to the Golden Valley, besides the vision of it and the making it happen, was the fact that we partnered with the city. We knew the cross-valley connector was a key to the economics of this community and will continue to be a key to the economics of this community, and the partnering with George Caravalho, the then city-manager, and myself, and one of the major commercial developers, Mr. (Larry) Rasmussen, coming together and bringing that just brought the dollars of economics to the table. That was highly advantageous to this community.
Signal: You mentioned residual property; the foundation actually bought more acreage than you needed for Golden Valley High School. Now the foundation is selling some of it to a single-family home builder?
Lee: There's about a 16-1/2 to 17-acre parcel that we're under contract with Centex.
Signal: On the high school side of Golden Valley Road?
Lee: Well, if you were to drive up to the school site as you enter
Signal: On Robert C. Lee Parkway
Lee: Yes, on Robert Lee Parkway don't ask me about that story. But there's a pad on the two corners, and one directly east of that. Centex is working a developmental agreement with the city right now.
Signal: There's also leftover property on the other side of Golden Valley Road
Lee: On the side that's undeveloped right now, that (in) the future may or may not (be) developed. And then the foundation owns the intersection, or the corner, of Golden Valley and Via Princessa, which will be a very valuable piece of property in the future when those roads come in. I mean, you're sitting on a very nice commercial piece.
Signal: So the foundation acts as the developer. It entitles the leftover land, sells it to a merchant builder, and puts the profits into new high school sites?
Lee: New high school sites or gives it to the district and the district builds auditoriums.
Signal: The foundation can gift money to the school district?
Lee: Absolutely. We were the foundation was partnered with the school district on the Aquatic Center with the city of the Santa Clarita. They've partnered with the Boys and Girls Club on that complex, and the board of education really is the benefactor, if you will.
The board of education has asked the foundation to assist in the financing of the performing arts centers at the two high schools. The state of California will not build performing art centers. It's just part of their, "We don't build those things, communities need to build those." And so we will take the moneys from the Centex deal and invest those into the performing arts programs at those two schools.
Signal: Doesn't the new performing arts center at COC meet the Hart district's needs?
Lee: We will utilize the performing arts center at COC as they have utilized our facilities, but again, those two high schools need their venues. Those two high schools have wonderful performing arts programs, students and instructors, and those two high schools need their venues just as Valencia has, as Hart has, as Golden Valley ultimately will have when we finish that.
Signal: Golden Valley High School and Rancho Pico Junior High opened this fall; what's next and when?
Lee: Well, Castaic high school was going to be next. We were going to be constructing in the spring of '05 and opening in the fall of '07. Obviously our timetable on that one has moved out to opening in '08, construction in '06 if again, as I said earlier, the developer and Newhall County Water are working to make that happen.
We are in need of, and working with a developer on, a junior high site in the area let's see, how could I explain it? If you know where the Santa Clara River and Plum Canyon (are), just north of Home Depot across the river, there's a development going in there. There's a strong possibility that there would be a junior high site there, and that developer is going to the city right now with his developmental plans.
Signal: Is that Synergy?
Lee: It's Synergy. Exactly. Correct. Synergy is the name of the company. If that's the case, that site could be made available in '06; we'd be under construction then, and a junior site could really be opened in '07, fall of. And then we're looking for a high school site on the eastern, northeastern quadrant of the district, and (it's) still undetermined where that's going to be kind of wait and see what COC is going to do on their alternate campus, because we'd like to again partner with them.
Signal: Not too close to Cemex?
Lee: No, absolutely. I think we're both looking at getting as far away from that as possible.
Signal: You've been superintendent since 1995, and now you're taking early retirement? Because you're not up there yet
Lee: Well, I don't know what "up there" means. I've been in education in August of this coming year, it will be 38 years. And of that, 21 of those have been superintendent. It's been a great ride here for 10 years. (It's) time to turn the leadership over to someone else, more energetic, more opportunistic, if you can, than maybe I was.
I will stay with the district and deal with some facilities which is my forte and hopefully the community will rally around the new superintendent he or she and quite frankly take this district educationally to the next level. It's ready. It's ready.
Signal: So you'll stay and be hands-on with getting the new schools open?
Lee: That would be my intent.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.