It's not easy to take on the likes of San Diego Unified School superintendent Alan Bersin. Subject of endless rounds of favorable coverage in the Union-Tribune and the darling of its editorial board, son-in-law of one of the city's most influential land owners, backed by millions of dollars from San Diego's political and business establishment, Bersin, an old college friend of President Bill Clinton's, gets his way on almost every issue that comes before the board of education. But two weeks ago, the juggernaut came to a sudden halt -- at least for the time being.
The subject of Bersin's disappointment was not his much-vaunted, controversial "Blueprint for Student Success," which, after an eight-hour, commotion-filled meeting, passed a bitterly divided Board of Education, 3-2. Instead, it was an obscure item to condemn 25 acres of land at Interstate 805 and Highway 52 for $16 million that came before the board just before the "Blueprint" ruckus. The item failed on a 3-2 affirmative vote because it did not garner the two-thirds majority vote required for passage.
The item had nothing to do with education, per se, but plenty to do with the school district's growing real estate empire, which many believe the former United States Attorney is anxious to develop on his way to a career in local politics and beyond. It was brought down by Bersin's chief nemesis on the board, Frances O'Neill Zimmerman, a La Jolla matron with an eye for the bottom line, who fears that the proposed condemnation is the first step in a wildly overpriced scheme -- as yet unknown to the public -- to assemble a multimillion-dollar "administrative campus" north of Interstate 8.
Zimmerman and fellow board member John deBeck voted against the plan, after she pulled it from the board's so-called "consent agenda," where it would have been approved without public scrutiny and board discussion.
Zimmerman points to a series of internal school-district memos, including one by Bersin himself, touting the idea and showing it was hatched by what Zimmerman says is a secretive real estate advisory committee run by Stanley E. Foster, a wealthy local developer who is Bersin's father-in-law. According to another school-district memo, the site Bersin now wants to purchase has turned out to be more expensive than the one originally recommended by district staff.
Though the plan has yet to be disclosed to the public, school-district memos show that Bersin and his developer father-in-law want to build a new "administrative campus" on Cardinal Lane off Highway 163 near Genessee. To do so, they would sell off the old administrative complex on Normal Street in University Heights to real estate developers. The district would also have to move the warehouses currently on the Cardinal Lane site; Bersin wants to acquire the 805/52 site by condemnation and move them there.
Development of the proposed administrative complex and its steep price tag, which Zimmerman argues would suck money away from new-school construction, should be carefully considered in public hearings before Bersin and his father-in-law's real estate committee proceed further with their expansion plans, she says.
Zimmerman says she is also concerned about the secretive nature of the proposal and that untoward influence by lobbyists and others may have been brought to bear in an attempt to sway the board and its staff in the condemnation matter. Zimmerman has been a critic of Bersin's real estate advisory committee ever since she first learned about it in October 1999. Her re-election bid has been opposed by Bersin, Foster, and their supporters in local real estate and business, who claim she is obstructing Bersin's school-reform plans.
Foster, along with his associates in San Diego real estate and individuals with a direct financial interest in the 805/52 land deal, have given more than $5000 to the campaign of Zimmerman's opponent, lawyer Julie Dubick. And a last-minute hit piece against Zimmerman, sent out the weekend before the March primary by an independent political committee calling itself "Citizens for School Reform," was financed in part by a $1000 contribution by Stephen Williams, president of Sentre Partners, the company that has had extensive real estate dealings regarding the office park in which the 805/52 property lies.
In addition, Dubick's law firm, Seltzer, Caplan, represents the owners of the 805/52 property in dealings with the school district. James Dawe, a partner in Seltzer, Caplan, said in an interview last week he'd had a personal conversation with a school-board member -- whom he declined to identify -- regarding his clients' pending business before the board. The school district itself has no laws requiring lobbyists to register or disclose their nonpublic contacts with board members, but Jennifer Hardy Seelicke, another Seltzer, Caplan lawyer, is registered by the City of San Diego as a lobbyist for the entity that currently owns the 805/52 property.
In a September 1, 1999, memo to the board of education, chief district administrative officer Henry Hurley warned board members that Dawe had been contacting district staff about the pending acquisition and might attempt to reach boardmembers to lobby them individually.
"Mr. Dawe communicated with Georgia Snodgrass from Business Services earlier this week," according to the memo. "Ms. Snodgrass informed Mr. Dawe that any decision by the district to consider imminent domain actions would require board approval. Given Mr. Dawe's previous letter to me and the nature of his phone conversation with Ms. Snodgrass, it would not surprise staff if Mr. Dawe contacts boardmembers directly.
"Please understand that Mr. Dawe is representing his client's interests and may characterize the situation in the light most favorable to his client. Such a characterization might not necessarily represent the issues important to the district in this matter."
Partners and employees of the Seltzer, Caplan firm have given more than $3725 to Dubick's campaign to oust Zimmerman from the board, according to campaign-disclosure records on file with the county Registrar of Voters.
The confluence of political money and lobbying clout has led Zimmerman to consider proposing new regulations requiring full disclosure of lobbying activities at the district. "Under the circumstances now coming to light, I think it would be very useful to have a lobbying regulation such as those that exist at the county and the city," Zimmerman said in an interview this week. "I am concerned when I learn that the superintendent's developer father-in-law and politically active law firms like Seltzer, Caplan are mixing in real estate transactions involving the school district. We need a lot more light in these areas."