Newsmaker of the Week

John Kunak
President, Castaic Union School Board
Member, Castaic Area Town Council

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Sunday, March 4, 2007
(Television interview conducted February 27, 2007)

Signal: There's a lot going on in Castaic. Many folks in Castaic are talking about wanting to recall the Hart school board following its decision to send incoming Castaic freshmen from one overcrowded school to another over the next few years. Where do you stand on recalling the Hart board?

Kunak: I've gone through about 600 e-mails that have come to me. I think there are some problems with the Hart board. I think they have an obligation to educate our children and provide us with a facility, and we still don't have a high school.
    I think that's the major problem, and I think things need to be corrected. I don't think recall would be the answer.

Signal: It's only been a week since their decision, but are you aware of any actual effort in Castaic to organize a recall?

Kunak: I have, again, amongst all these e-mails — they're starting to put it out there. They're inquiring. Some people are saying: Let's do it. Some are saying: No, let's not spend our time; let's move forward.
    My feeling is, with the emotion that's running, if they could successfully recall someone, which could happen, I think (the incumbent) could simply run again and have the support of other portions of the district, and probably get elected again.
    I think we'd be better off concentrating our efforts on moving forward and making sure we get a timely high school, or as close to timely as they can do it.

Signal: Unlike Valencia, Newhall, Saugus, Canyon Country and Stevenson Ranch, Castaic is a K-8 district, as opposed to most of the rest of the valley, which is K-6. So the first time kids from Castaic are coming into the Hart District is when they enter the ninth grade — unlike the others, who enter the district in the seventh grade.

Kunak: That's one of the problems. The kids have been together, at least in our middle school, for three years. They look forward to their sense of community.
    I grew up in New Jersey; when I go back there after 40 years, I still dine with or stay at homes of friends I made in (my) high school years, and these are what these children are looking forward to.
    With these changes, and switching from school to school — although the Hart board has made some provision for siblings and that type of thing — it doesn't really help, because you may have to choose, now, between going to the high school that your brother or sister goes to, or going to the high school that your friends for three or nine years of elementary school go to. Plus, parents getting children back and forth to separate high schools — it's hard enough getting to one.
    So there is a lot of upset with regard to what has gone on. It's breaking up families and communities, and we're very, very unhappy about that.

Signal: Two seats on the Hart board are up anyway in November. Will you be running?

Kunak: I don't believe so. I'm in my second term on the Castaic board. The first four years I found very difficult, because I was oftentimes a minority of one. Depending on what the political climate is, and who is interested, I don't foresee Castaic gaining control of the Hart board. And to sit there — to just sit there and make my voice heard and get outvoted each time — is not really what I'm looking forward to doing again.
    I do expect to stay very active and stay involved in discussions, but at the moment, no. It's not on my radar.

Signal: Incoming freshmen from Castaic had gone to Valencia in the past. Now they go to West Ranch. In the next two school years (2007-08 and 2008-09), they're going back to Valencia under this Hart board decision. After that, they'll go back to West Ranch. A lot of this is related to the fact that there is still no high school in Castaic. Now, the Hart board is married to SunCal and the idea of building a school in NorthLake. Do you believe that's going to happen, and if so, when?

Kunak: OK. We sat here about two and a half years ago (in a Newsmaker interview). I was checking today, and we discussed this exact issue.

Signal: You're a returning guest.

Kunak: Right at the end of the interview — at that time, the issue was water. During that time, our school board passed a resolution asking the Newhall County Water (District) to provide them with water. The Town Council got involved, I testified on their behalf, and I think I helped in that regard. That was 2-1/2 years ago, and the high school (was) going to open in 2007.
    They've got the water. Here we sit today, and now they're talking 2010. I think that's extremely unrealistic. I don't think it's going to happen.
    Keep in mind that (in) 1992, the NorthLake Specific Plan got approved. It's gone through numerous hands and no one has seen fit to build it. Looking at the current economic climate, I don't know if or when that is going to take place, and if a high school will ever be there.
    Part of my concern with the Hart school board is, they are not looking at secondary options. I was amazed to find out they didn't continue to move along with the Hasley site as a backup, because it seems silly to put all your eggs in a basket that might have a hole in it.

Signal: With respect to NorthLake, it started in 1992 with Dirk Gosda, who sold to Genstar, and then it reverted back to Gosda and now it's SunCal. Besides water, what have been the hang-ups? The Hart District did a separate environmental impact report on the school, but there still is no completed EIR filed on NorthLake, is there?

Kunak: No. Although that has been represented as coming and coming and coming, no it hasn't. We had heard a Feb. 13 (2007) date not too long ago; I did check that before I left for vacation (two weeks ago) and found out that it hadn't happened. I'm now hearing March 1, so maybe we're just a little bit premature — but I'm not real comfortable that that's going to come down on time and where they're really going to go from there.
    I just have serious, serious concerns about this taking place. I expressed that at some Stevenson Ranch parent meetings and they were displeased with it, saying: We need to work together, both communities, it's important to you that we get a high school or we're going to have this battle going on four years from now.
    I would not at all be surprised if we were sitting here four years from now, talking about a different issue and why there's no Castaic High School.

Signal: At the recent Hart board meeting, some parents asked why the Hart District doesn't just sell part of the Sloan-Hasley site and use the money to build a school. But the Hart District doesn't actually own the Sloan-Hasley site; the SCV Facilities Foundation owns it, and the foundation has plans on file to develop homes.

Kunak: And here's where we get into the problems with trying to separate the two (Hart District and Facilities Foundation), where I'm still trying to figure out how they're going to make this work.
    What actually happened — and the Hart Board, or at least one member — seemed to blame the Castaic community for not having this go forward. Again, I steadfastly maintained it's the responsibility of the Hart board to get the high school built. That's what they're put there to do.
    What had come up a number of years ago when they were looking at Sloan-Hasley — which now, by the way, they say isn't suitable for a school, but assuming that it was for some reason—

Signal: It has not been approved by the state for a school.

Kunak: And they came to us — there were some Hasley (Canyon) residents who really didn't like the school being in their backyard, and a very thoughtful and simple meeting was held. We had NorthLake coming, and the Hart board was going to take their Hasley site, build 68 homes on that site, move the school site over to NorthLake because it was going to be the jewel of the high school district. It was perfect land; it was overlooking the lake.
    There was never a mention of any delay whatsoever. So it would simply be me saying to you, "Whatever type of house you live in, here's something else a mile away and it's twice as nice and twice as large and we're going to swap it with you; is that OK?" And you're going to say yes.
    We made that exchange. But nothing has gone on, and again there has been no alternative, from my understanding, looked at. And that's a big, big concern.

Signal: As a school board member, you deal with school construction. I haven't kept up with the numbers, but once upon a time, maybe as long as 20 years ago, it used to cost $8 million to build an elementary school and twice that, $16 million or maybe $20 million, to build a high school. But now we're talking about a price tag of $175 million for a Castaic High School. How is that possible?

Kunak: I'm amazed, and I don't know how they can do it.
    I've had some discussions with Lennar, which is starting to build some of their own schools in their neighborhoods, and they think although construction costs have gone up incredibly, that these costs are just way out of line.
    When we last spoke here a few years ago, it was going to be a $100 million high school. Now, depending on who you listen to, it's $175 (million), $190 million, maybe more.
    When it was explained to me by the (Hart) board why they didn't look at the other sites, "Well that's costly." Well, I can't imagine it's a $100 million dollar cost — and that's what has been lost, thus far, waiting for SunCal to get moving.
    What's it going to be in four more years? Is the same school going to be $400 (million)? Are we going to get a school that's worth $10 million now, or are we going to get $400 million worth of money spent to get the school that was originally planned? We don't know.

Signal: Another thing that came up at the recent Hart board meeting was the fact that some of the Hart board members didn't like the idea of placing portable classrooms on the brand-new West Ranch High School campus. Now, what if somebody came up with a piece of land and you had the ability to build an all-portable high school immediately? Would you support that idea?

Kunak: That's a difficult one to ask me. Speaking on behalf of the community, from what I've read, I believe they would be very much in favor of it. Thinking in my own mind how important it is for me to keep the children together, the most important thing — I think yes, I would be in favor of it. I'm not thrilled about it, but I do think — it's so, so important, as we've said earlier, that the children be a family, stay together.
    You know, they thought they were (Valencia) Vikings, then they thought they were (West Ranch) Wildcats. Our current eighth graders can only wear Castaic Middle School gear or West Ranch gear to school. That's where they think they're going, until a week ago, and it seems like they're being abused a little bit, in my opinion.

Signal: We can certainly remember the opposition to the Sloan-Hasley site from some of the folks in Sloan and Hasley canyons. Is it your sense today that if the Sloan-Hasley property were doable as a school, the people of Castaic would jump on that?

Kunak: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind. In fact, you know I've been on vacation, but I was catching up on The Signal when I came back. I read the (Reader Meter) poll that showed 88 percent of in favor of it (using Sloan-Hasley if it could be built years earlier than a school in NorthLake).
    Just before I left, I went to three of our four PTA meetings and asked that question of a total in excess of 200 people. None of them were against going back to Sloan-Hasley. In fact, I made telephone calls to people I know who live back there who would not be happy about it, to say: Based upon what I'm hearing, I would have to support it and please don't hate me and here's the reasons why. And they were not pleased with the idea, but I think they're starting to recognize how important it is, and the majority, if they can get it built, would overwhelmingly support it.

Signal: Even if it wouldn't be the big jewel on the hill in NorthLake.

Kunak: Yes, I believe so.

Signal: What is the K-8 Castaic Union School Board doing now to try to keep those kids together at the high school level?

Kunak: Well, we picked this up, back in August or September. When I read about the latest delay in the (school) site, it just made no sense, so I started making phone calls and I called Supervisor (Michael D. Antonovich's) office and I called SunCal and I called the Hart board. Antonovich's office helped me put together a meeting where we had some Hart board members, their superintendent, the top SunCal people, the top county people, to discuss what's going on and how are we going to do this, and what is the timeline. I tried to go backward: What do you need by now, what permit do you need, at each step of the proceeding, and it seemed like it was going to be difficult to put together.
    Near the end of that meeting was when I suggested: Gee, if this isn't going to happen, how long would it take us to get back to the Hasley site and get this thing moving? (I) didn't really get an answer, but did find out shortly thereafter that the Facilities Foundation, or at least (one) member, was contacting people in Hasley Canyon, saying, "They're thinking about doing this again, you need to mobilize" (against a school there). So it's real clear that they don't want to see the high school go there under any circumstance, and that has caused me some problems.

Signal: And now, Supervisor Antonovich has come in with a piece of land owned by Newhall Land across from the lagoon, the 450-acre Castaic Mesa property, of which the Hart District might need about 50 for a school. We're hearing from some Hart board members that it's not a valid site because it isn't tied to a development project; Newhall Land would be selling the land to the Hart District for cash that it doesn't have — unlike NorthLake, where the housing developer would be giving the land to the school district as mitigation — part of the cost of doing business.

Kunak: I think this is where they have to make decisions — and I know money is tight — about how you're going to spend your money.
    I again say that they have an obligation to educate our children. We're having problems with splitting them up; we still don't have the high school. At some point, you have to start looking at what your options are. Are we going to never get a high school if SunCal doesn't go forth? If it's 15 more years from now, are we going to be sitting here? I think they need to look at it.
    You do get matching funds. This whole thing has to do with raising the value of the land and increasing the matching funds, so maybe it'll be a greater financial hit. But if that's something that would work, I think they need to at least start looking at it.
    I'm not out there yet, although I'm having some discussions now; there is another potential site I found out about on the mountaintop when I was away last weekend with a cell phone call, out in the Valencia Industrial Center, where there's about 70 acres of land that has utilities running right up to it at the moment, where the owner is apparently coming into town next week and maybe at least looking to discuss it and see what's going on.
    Again, options are what we need. We can't just sit back and wait, because we've been waiting too long. And if it's going to be more expensive, well, we're seeing how expensive things are. We've seen the cost overruns that have gone on there, and action has to be taken to get a high school built however you look at it.

Signal: About the Newhall Land property — if you look at a map, it's probably closer to the Pitchess Detention Center than either Sloan-Hasley or the NorthLake site. Are you hearing concerns that it's too close to the jail?

Kunak: I've only heard one, and we've had discussions about the escapes; the fear that it's close to our Sports Complex. We made arrangements as soon as something goes on to make sure that there was law enforcement at the Sports Complex, that it was locked down. That's used by kids and young kids, 5-year-olds at preschools. There are all sorts of things to make sure it's secure and safe, and that has been going on for a while. But it's never been a problem there. There has been one escapee caught close to there.
    We've also had discussions, independent of this, with Pitchess and with their commander, about making sure things were safe, and they're working on it. Simple things like wire, which hadn't been up, is going up to make sure people stay in there. They've got monitoring devices on the prisoners. There are sheriffs at a lot of the high schools.
    So, (is that the) ideal situation? No. But the ideal situation doesn't exist. To me, I don't think it's a problem.

Signal: Let's get to the other hat you're wearing — Town Council member. What's going on with annexation vs. cityhood vs. staying in the county?

Kunak: We have really been moving along, although it may not seem like it.
    When I was president of the Town Council, we formed a Vision Committee to look into our options. We spent a lot of time, we went out to Fillmore and talked to their city manager. We went out to Calabasas and spoke to their mayor and city manager. We're educating ourselves as best we can. Remember, we're volunteers as we do all this, so we have other things to do, also. But we're learning a lot about it and figuring out where we can go.
    One of the things that we we're going to need was money. So recently, a couple of months ago, the Town Council disbanded the Vision Committee, and pretty much the same group formed something called "Castaic Now," a nonprofit, so we can start trying to raise money to do the things we learned we had to do — the initial financial analysis being the big one.
    We had been asking the county for financial figures for quite some time, and they had been promising them to us. Turned out, they came back to us and said: It's more difficult than we think to get you those figures. That's when Supervisor Antonovich agreed to put up the $25,000 to allow us to do this initial study. It might be just a little short of what we need, but we're going to get it done.
    We're still looking into the option of annexation. In fact, as you know, I left (a) meeting right now to get here (for this Newsmaker interview) where (town) council members and (Santa Clarita) City Council (members) are discussing different issues and different ways we want to go about studying the issue. The City, I believe tonight — and this is Tuesday, so we'll hear about this later — but they're going to put up $25,000 to do their own annexation study. The request that I had made was: Would you please keep us involved?
    As a lawyer, a judge once told me: You can get an expert on anything if you've got the money — so let's make sure we get independent consultants to look at that and give us information that would be helpful to both the unincorporated area and the city, so we can have a discussion, a meaningful discussion, about where things are, educate the community, and make the proper decision, where everyone seems to be agreeing self-determination is what we're entitled to.
    There have been some one-sided discussions about things. I can probably convince you of certain things if I give you alleged facts that you don't hear the other side of, and I think we're coming along with getting this information. I think we are now really moving ahead. This study will probably be started in the next month or two. It takes probably four months. We're going to know what's feasible or what isn't feasible, and then go from there.

Signal: Have you already decided that you don't want to stay as you are in the unincorporated county; that you either want to annex into the city of Santa Clarita or form your own city?

Kunak: The Castaic area and the Castaic Vision Committee and the Castaic (Area) Town Council, at this point, yes. We've decided that such a large amount of our revenue that we generate goes out to other areas (of the county) that we would be better off leaving the unincorporated area of the county.

Signal: Have you done any polling in Castaic to find out what the people think?

Kunak: We've tried to; we've had one very large meeting awhile back, where numerous county representatives, Highway Patrol, sheriff, city, Stevenson Ranch, everyone was there. We tried an informal poll on the way out. It was kind of split.
    You've got a few people who are dead-set one way, because I think they've been influenced by this one set of facts which may not actually be the facts. There are others who don't want to be part of a large city. So there's no real strong mandate. But I think that when we get the information, we can convince someone that we'll be better off financially and can do more on our own, that they'll go along with it. When we get the rest of this information done, along with the city and our own studies, I'm thinking that we can present real information, and hopefully it won't be a hard decision. Hopefully it'll be easy once we get the data.

Signal: These studies that are going on right now — the one that's being funded by Supervisor Antonovich deals with the question of whether the money is there to incorporate your own city. The one the city is funding would address the issue of "revenue neutrality" if you annex. But these are preliminary, cursory studies, to determine whether it's even worthwhile to go forward. Then you'd have to spend a bigger amount of money on a formal feasibility study.

Kunak: You are correct. In looking at us as far as cityhood, if we can't get past this initial hurdle of the independent financial analysis, there's no reason to be looking further.
    The Castaic and Stevenson Ranch communities and town councils are very strong and solid at this point in time to work on this together. We think it would be beneficial to us to do this together. We might ask the consultants, since they're there to just look at the split, to see what it would be, so we'd have full information when we do it.
    But at the moment, the town councils are strongly unified to stay together. Let's see where this can go, and if there's going to be a second city, have it be a city on the west side comprising both areas.

Signal: The Castaic community has been around essentially forever; Stevenson Ranch only started construction in 1988. For many years the two communities were seen as separate areas with Magic Mountain in the middle. It's probably only the last six or eight years that people really started talking about Castaic and Stevenson Ranch, and now West Ranch, hanging together on cityhood issues. Have you already decided — the Castaic Area Town Council and the West Ranch Town Council — that whatever happens, you're going together?

Kunak: Yes. There have been some Castaic residents in the past who have been concerned about just having it be Castaic. Again, we don't have the figures to say if it could happen that way, but the town councils have sat down and met and agreed, and yes, we're saying that we're going to pursue this together, and unless financial data comes through differently or something that we have not foreseen occurs, we are presently unified on both points.
    If we're going to annex, we're going to ask to annex together. If we're going to form a city, we're going to try to form a city together.

Signal: The city has been putting out numbers — something on the order of $45 million per year in tax revenue is generated in the unincorporated parts of the SCV, but only $25 million comes back to unincorporated SCV residents in the form of services. Where are you on those figures?

Kunak: Well, that's why we're doing the study. We've heard the same thing. We've had the same suspicions. We've begged for the information for quite some time and have not been able to get it, and now we're being given the resources to actually have the study done to do it.
    I think it's going to show pretty much what you're saying, and obviously that causes us some concern and will lead us to try to keep our share, so to speak.

Signal: In terms of tax revenues, the big generators are the Valencia Marketplace and Magic Mountain; are there other major source?

Kunak: I've tried to learn about this a little bit. We had one project, I can recall, come before the Town Council, to do an Arco station in our trucking district. They were talking about selling — my goodness, we talked about the amount of gas and the amount of taxes that that was producing; it staggered my mind...
    There are some restrictions on the Marketplace, with regard to Newhall Land and the county, that would need to be negotiated and worked out. We do have alimony that we need to pay (to the county), and if Magic Mountain stayed in there, it would be a large amount of money being paid...

Signal: You've just come from a meeting with representatives of the town councils and the Santa Clarita City Council. We've seen some lightening rods on both sides in recent years, on the subject of annexation. Are they going to get along this time?

Kunak: We started the meeting today with saying: Let's put aside all the things that have happened.
    We're getting closer now. In the past, it was a lot of rhetoric and "what if this" and "what if that." Now we're actually expending the money (on the studies). We're getting solid information that hopefully we can look at together, and I think that will take away a lot of the antagonism that has gone on, a lot of misinformation that may have been put out there to convince you of something that isn't actually true, (so) we'll hopefully be on the same page.
    Is there going to be a situation where you can't distinguish? Is it going to come back too fuzzy? I really don't know. I'm hoping it doesn't. I hope it gives us the information that we need, and I hope it turns out that the communities can do the proper thing for them.

Signal: What's your next move in terms of the issue of a Castaic high school?

Kunak: Our Castaic Union School District — which again has nothing to do with building the high school — is having a special meeting this (past) Thursday for the community to come out and speak to us about what their thoughts are and the different things going on in the community.
    I've asked, and now I'll formally ask here: I would like to see either the Hart superintendent or their school board provide us with a monthly report, both the Town Council and the (Castaic) school board, about what they've done in the last 30 days.
    Too much time goes by, nothing gets done. Let's find out what you've done in the last 30 days each month, and if you're doing nothing, let's find out why, so we get to something and find out what's really happening and get it built.
    Again, it's in their hands; it's their responsibility. We'd love to help them. We've supported (them) in the past. As I say, we went out on the water issue to get SunCal moving. We'll do whatever we can to get that high school done.
    Not at the cost of putting in a SunCal project that is bad for the community. If we're not getting anything out of it where there's no place for a kid to play, no, we can't do that. But, everything we could reasonably do for our community, and with the No. 1 priority being the building of a high school right now, we'll take whatever action we can.

    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 Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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