San Marino Mayor Allan Yung, left, and San Marino Unified School District President Nam Jack share kind words after a lengthy discussion about the city's potential involvement with the construction of the Barth Athletic Complex at Huntington Middle School. Kev Kurdoghlian Photo

San Marino Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Alex Cherniss appeared before a joint session of the San Marino City Council and SMUSD Governing Board on Nov. 9 to ask the council for a rental use prepayment of $2 million for the soon-to-be constructed Barth Athletic Complex at Huntington Middle School.

“The district is simply asking that the city pay these rental fees—that you’d be paying anyways—up front rather than at the time of the rental,” said Cherniss.

The council, however, did not find the request to be so simple.

Mayor Dr. Allan Yung acknowledged the closeness of San Marino’s two governing bodies but expressed concern about the legality of the prepayment, the low cost recovery potential for the city, and the affordability given the city’s many current and future expenses.

When asked if such a partnership proposed by Cherniss would be legal, Steven Flower—an attorney with San Marino’s City Attorney’s office—told The Tribune he is “aware of other school districts that have worked cooperatively with cities on joint projects such as this,” but added that as far as the specific terms of any agreement, “it is way too early in the process.”

“The terms of any deal would be specific to that deal,” Flower said.

Council Member Steve Talt noted at the meeting, “We should only invest in this if there’s a need, not just a want. And need is based on the actual use we’ll get out of it.”

Council Member Steven Huang contributed with an eight question worksheet, which he assigned to Cherniss.

If the San Marino Recreation Department would like to use the district’s new athletic facility, Cherniss explained that “absent any upfront contribution from the city, the city would be paying the district to rent this gym on an hourly basis when it’s completed.”

The council then heard from its staff.

Interim City Manager Cindy Collins shared the results of a city-performed preliminary analysis about the matter.

The city, she said, estimated 53 hours per week of usage at a rate of $100 per hour. At that rate, a $2 million prepayment would give the city eight years of usage, Collins said.

“One of the biggest issues would be for a rental rate for us to get to 100 percent cost recovery,” she noted, reminding the council of its imposed 70 percent revenue recovery requirement for the Recreation Department.

Collins added that most youth groups currently pay significantly lower hourly rental rates than the potential $100 rate.

Assistant City Manager Lucy Garcia continued on the subject of the city’s finances.

“We also have to take into consideration additional expenditures that the city would incur as a result of programming the space,” Garcia said.

She stated that the city’s analysis revealed a potential profit of $210,000 per year as a result of the city’s investment. However, she added, it would require every hour of the 53 hours to be utilized.

At the end of the 2015-16 fiscal year, the City of San Marino had a reserve of $21 million, or 82.3 percent of its current budget.

Cherniss returned to the podium after Collins and Garcia.

“I just would like to ask the council to not focus completely, totally, on dollars and cents,” he said. “There is a lot of value in investing in the school district. The property values in this city—which are not a part of this study—are directly tied to the success of the school district. And our facilities, and putting a new gym at the middle school, will enhance the value of living in this community. And so I think that is something that is important for the council to consider when arranging this agreement.”

The district will demolish the existing HMS gym on June 1, 2017 with an expected completion date of 18 to 24 months from the date of demolition.

Cherniss cited the City of San Marino’s 2003 General Plan, which, he said, encourages joint use relationships between the city and the school district in order to meet the recreational needs and expectations of the community.

“It’s all about community use,” he said. “This is an opportunity before the City of San Marino to partner with our school district on a project that has been desperately needed for the students and the residents of San Marino for decades.”

The district has raised $4.5 million of the estimated $14 million needed to fund construction of the new athletic facility.

Another $4 million from the district facilities and developer fee funds is expected to help carry the project, Cherniss noted. “This $2 million contribution [from the city] would allow the school district to borrow less.”

“We’re simply asking for the contribution to be up front. It’s not a gift. It’s not a donation. And the amount of money you contribute would be credited towards rental use at an hourly rate,” declared Cherniss, emphasizing that the terms of an agreement are negotiable.

As of press time, the city and the school district have not commenced discussions to move forward with negotiating an agreement.

The PTA presidents of San Marino’s public schools reinforced  Cherniss’s points during the item’s public comments portion.

“Won’t it be wonderful when our school and community programs no longer have to rent space outside San Marino and could stay in our city? Won’t it be wonderful when our community teams no longer have to wait until late at night to practice simply because there isn’t enough current gym space to accommodate everyone?” asked PTA Council President Yvonne Chen.

“Our schools deserve facilities that match our students’ hard work and accomplishments. Our citizens deserve protection of our property values through the city’s support of our schools,” Chen continued, describing San Marino as a “tight-knit community.” “We need to support one another to ensure continued success.”

Huntington Middle School PTA President Christina Pink, joined by PTA Presidents Cynthia Ary, Helen Phan and Nicolette Fuerst, also stressed the need for the new facility.

“You cannot call what HMS has now a gym. And people jokingly refer to it as ‘the no purpose room,’” Pink said.

Three others spoke in opposition to the idea of a city contribution to the school district.

Resident Bill Gardner warned the council of potential “unseen consequences.”

“If the people see that you’re going to write $2 million to the schools, then they’ll think ‘well gee, why aren’t we spending that on police and fire? Then we don’t have to pass [the public safety tax],’” he said.

“The city ought to keep with the city business and the schools should go with the school business,” Gardner added, noting that HMS likely does need a new gym.

On a similar note, resident Ken Ude advised the council to thoughtfully consider the profitability of a potential city investment in the gym.

Cherniss told The Tribune that the school district will move ahead with the project.

“I was very disappointed,” he said. “The city council didn’t really show much interest in supporting this project. The Barth Athletic Complex is the most important project in this city in years. The students and community of San Marino will greatly benefit. However, it appears that the city will not help pay for it. So as a district we will continue to move forward. The project is still moving along on time and as planned. To me, this is a missed opportunity on behalf of the city.”

Tribune Editor Mitch Lehman contributed to this story.