Everybody who watches old movies knows this story line: A girl from a rich family falls in love with a boy from the poor side of town. It goes without saying that the parents of the rich girl are snobs, and they offer the boy a thick wad of cash to go away. But his heart is pure, and he spurns the dough. Boy and girl subsequently elope amid the sound of swelling music. There can be a variant of the plot, however. In this version, the young man takes the money and hits the pavement. Maybe I've been spending too much time lately watching Turner Classic Movies on cable, but this story line sure reminds me of the negotiations between the City of Tustin in Orange County and a pair of school districts in neighboring Santa Ana. In this version of the plot, Tustin does not want Santa Ana to build a high school on the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, and is willing to contribute $38 million in cash to make the Santa Ana school districts go away. Like the poor boy in the movies, Santa Ana schools at first spurn the offer indignantly, insisting they have a legitimate claim to the land. But Tustin's rich buyout offer also has its attractions, and the school district is now considering a deal consisting of a little bit of land and a good deal of cash. A former Marine helicopter base built by the Navy during World War II, the 1,500-acre Tustin base was pegged for closure in 1992; it eventually closed its gates in 1998. The base is surrounded by the City of Tustin, which became the sole base reuse authority in 1993. Under the McKinney Act, which has since been amended, public agencies and certain community organizations had first pick of military-base land. In 1993, two Santa Ana School districts — Rancho Santiago Community College and Santa Ana Unified — requested 75 to 100 acres of the base to build new classrooms ranging from kindergarten to community college. Densely developed Santa Ana needs to build at least four new high schools throughout the district but lacks the large parcels needed for school construction. Currently, 40% of Santa Ana's 60,000 schoolchildren are in temporary classrooms, and many schools lack playing fields and other basic amenities. The U.S. Department of Education approved the request at the time, and has endorsed the decision several times since. While Tustin's vision for the former military base does not rule out school construction, the city is focussed on creating a high-end residential community. It is hard not to interpret the city's proposed land use map as an attempt to replicate the bucolic Orange County suburbia of the 1960s and '70s. The city intends to entitle the site for 3,000 new dwelling units, including 175 acres of high-end "golf villages," plus 9 million square feet of new commercial space, with schools, parks and open space. The same plan locates a new community college campus on the "Learning Village." Tustin's plan, however, gives the two Santa Ana school districts only 37 acres between them— less than the 40 acres Santa Ana deems necessary for one high school — in the northern end of the Learning Village. "Many people wanted land on the base, and nobody got everything of what they wanted," says a city official. The school districts, however, got some bonuses: Environmental tests revealed that the 37-acre site was badly contaminated and likely ill-suited for school construction. Under a law passed in the wake of the Belmont High School scandal in downtown Los Angeles, the state Department of Toxic Substance Control must certify all school construction sites, and will approve only environmentally pristine sites. (In many military bases, badly contaminated land is "encapsulated" with layers of soil or asphalt, and limited to industrial use.) The two school districts accused Tustin of trying to thwart school construction out of racism, and filed a Title VI discrimination lawsuit against the city earlier this year. A city spokeswoman dismissed the accusations as "completely offensive, groundless and baseless." That may be true, but it remains the case that Tustin has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent the construction of a new high school on the base. Tustin and Santa Ana are neighbors but, in fact, are very different places in ethnic make-up. Santa Ana is a Latino enclave, and the city's school districts are 98% Latino, compared with about 43% in Tustin. Tustin and the school districts began secret meetings in November 2000 to work out a compromise in which the school districts would settle for less than 100 acres in exchange for money from land sales on the base. The school districts apparently did not like the deal's terms, and the arrangement appeared on the verge of falling through. In August, Gov. Gray Davis signed AB 212 (Correa),which banned all development on the base until Tustin gives 100 acres to the Santa Ana districts — or until the parties come up with their own deal. Since then, the city and the school districts have returned to the negotiating table. In the latest version of the deal, the school districts get 37 acres of clean land, while the city will provide the first $20 million in sales proceeds to materialize at the base, and another $18 million from the sale of residential property. The school districts will then take the proceeds and buy land for a high school inside Santa Ana. The deal has a final stumbling block: The school districts have requested that Tustin provide an alternative clean site for schools if the promised clean site also turns out to be tainted. Nonetheless, the deal seems closer to a handshake than ever before. While it is nice that Tustin and the school districts appear close to an agreement, the real question is why Tustin has insisted on going through this exercise in avoidance. Even if we exonerate the community from the charge of racism, it does seem inappropriate for the city to thwart an essential community use like a school. Additionally, the financial deal seems overly elaborate, expensive and, arguably, a waste of time when a simple solution is available. What's most unfortunate is that the entire controversy has created an atmosphere of mutual distrust between neighboring cities. While the parents may not care for the young man, it would be easier to let the young lovers run off together, and save the go-away money for a better purpose.