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John Zaring: The Castaic conundrum

Posted: May 15, 2010 1:08 p.m.
Updated: May 16, 2010 4:55 a.m.
A few weeks back at a meeting of the William S. Hart Union School District board, I overheard this observation about the Castaic high school site selection process: “Gee, those people in Castaic really, really want a high school for their kids.” There was a pause for effect. “They just don’t want it in Castaic.”  It’s sad but true, I’m afraid. And even sadder, the joke is us.

Santa Clarita likes to trumpet “one valley, one vision,” but around here, a review of the 10-year drama surrounding where to put the high school reveals a far different reality.

In Castaic, no one can agree on anything. In 2002, the Santa Clarita Facilities Foundation bought 50-plus acres at the corner of Hasley and Sloan Canyon roads for the Hart district to build a Castaic high school. Before the ink on The Signal’s story was dry, a few disgruntled but well-connected Sloan residents convinced their buddies on the Castaic Town Council to say “No! Not here!”

As a result, the children of Castaic lost their school before most people even knew anyone was against it.  

Eight years later, the Hart district board is still trying to figure out where to put the school. Why?  Well, to answer that question a quick geography lesson might be helpful.  

Many Santa Clarita residents picture a dusty truck stop, but in reality Castaic is so much more than the gas stations, fast-food joints, dirt roads and ’50s-era homes that straddle Interstate 5 between Parker and Lake Hughes roads.

It spreads over 100 square-miles, making it Santa Clarita’s largest unincorporated hamlet. The vast majority of Castaic’s 25,000 residents can be found in Northlake, Double C, Hillcrest Park and Hasley Hills neighborhoods that blossomed over the last decade or so, and are in every way equal to those in Stevenson Ranch.

Thousands more live in the older neighborhoods of Live Oak and Hidden Hills, and the unique village of Val Verde, but few outsiders realize that many of Santa Clarita’s most valuable horse ranches and gated estates are located in Hasley, Sloan and Romero canyons.   

That, my friends, is exactly the conundrum of Castaic. It isn’t really one “community” at all. Castaic is actually a loose confederation of disparate and diverse neighborhoods, each with its own unique identity and yes, agenda. We’re sort of like the European Union, which means our 10-person town council is only responsible to some of us, not all of us.

With most people going about their lives in blissful apathy, our political leaders are free to protect their own little fiefdoms without regard for the needs of the greater community or, in the case of the high school, the children of Castaic.  

Yet amazingly, despite a difficult process rife with fits and starts, the Hart district hopes to open the high school to ninth-graders in 2013/14. They have the money thanks to the passage of Measure SA, the $300 million school bond which Santa Clarita’s voters overwhelmingly approved in 2008, despite a worsening economy and an aggressive, albeit counter-intuitive, opposition led by John Kunak, then president of the Castaic Union School District board.  

Still, here we sit, amazingly on the precipice of finally opening the doors to the high school. Well, sort of.

The Hart district has whittled from nine to two sites still under consideration, and the board has committed a half-million scarce dollars on environmental experts, geologists, architects, engineers and other consultants to determine which of the finalists — private property in Romero Canyon owned by Centre Pointe developer Larry Rasmussen, or the original land the Facilities Foundation purchased in 2002 at Hasley/Sloan — makes the most sense, financially and timewise, to meet that 2013 goal.  

Since last November, when the finalists were identified, a dizzying parade of political leaders has lodged logic-defying complaints against Hasley/Sloan. Not surprisingly, one who keeps popping up is anti-Measure SA crusader Kunak.

Mr. Kunak, a personal injury lawyer, has dominated Castaic’s political landscape for much of the past decade. He spent eight years on the town council, and served two terms on the Castaic district board. In 2004, he was named Castaic’s Man of the Year. These days, he is a key consigliore to Rasmussen.  

While I find it ironic that Kunak is trying to score money from a bond he fought so doggedly to defeat, he apparently does not. His testimony before the Hart district board is usually packed with authoritative repose about how wonderful he finds Rasmussen and his property, packaged within fact-challenged folly about Hasley/Sloan and whether Castaic will support a school there.   

Meeting after meeting, other lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who also benefit from Rasmussen’s largesse rise before the Hart board to make coordinated appeals clearly fashioned from the same talking points. If it weren’t so laughingly obvious it would otherwise be appalling.

Meanwhile, hardly any Castaic residents say anything, let alone anything positive, because just like in 2002 few people are aware this debate is happening.  As Yogi Berra famously once said, “It is déjà vu all over again!”

To be fair, I don’t blame Rasmussen for trying to sell his property to the Hart district. With home sales stalled, the residential tract he originally planned for Romero would lie dormant for maybe 10-15 years. Going hard after the only buyer in town is not only smart business but pragmatic.

I say go for it, and while I’m cheerleading, we should thank Mr. Rasmussen for investing $5,000 a few weeks ago into the Town Council-sponsored Road Race, for underwriting Castaic Days (reportedly he’s in for $10,000) and for the $500 he gave the Boys & Girls Club for passing out his pro-Romero fliers.   

This avalanche of generosity might not pass everyone’s smell test — for example, Castaic’s Boy Scouts refused the cash-for-fliers offer — but assuming the apathetic crowd blissfully misses the propaganda campaign and the Town Council isn’t influenced by this giddy giving, the Hart district board should have the time it needs to review the hundreds of thousands of dollars in benign, emotion-free scrutiny due to be filed in just a few weeks.

With irrefutable information in hand, I’m convinced the Hart district will act swiftly. The two new trustees repeatedly promised a school in Castaic on the campaign trail, and the holdovers have long been saying that the school is their highest priority.

Let’s not forget that retiring Superintendent Jamie Castellanos would certainly prefer the legacy of a job completed to a job left undone, while his staff just wants to put this whole mess behind them.  

The only unknown is what Castaic’s politicians will say and do once the Hart board picks a site. That’s where you come in.

Regardless of whether the district chooses Romero or Hasley/Sloan, you need to call, write and go before the Castaic Area Town Council to demand they (and their boss, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich) act on behalf of the common good and support the districts decision. No if, ands or crybabies allowed.  

For those who live elsewhere in Santa Clarita Valley, remember that the Castaic high school is good for you, too. The overcrowding problems which exist throughout the Hart district will find relief.    

When Castaic’s high school finally opens, everybody wins. And that’s no joke.

John Zaring has been a Castaic resident since 2000. He serves on the Castaic Union School District’s strategic planning committee, the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Commission’s arts education committee and the Hart district’s financing corporation. In 2004, he founded Castaic United to Build the School, and in 2008 he served as the campaign manager for Measure SA, the $300 million school bond. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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