DMUSD gathers input on Pacific Highlands Ranch school

The Del Mar Union School District (DMUSD) needs to act soon on its option to build a new school in Pacific Highlands Ranch to meet increasing enrollment demands.

The district has a school facilities mitigation agreement with Pardee Homes to purchase a 10-acre lot on Solterra Vista Parkway once the number of permits issued reaches 1,565 units. DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said that threshold is fast approaching and the district will need to make a decision in the next four months on whether or not to buy the property—the price tag will be based on “highest and best use” for the land and is estimated at $9.7 million.

Neighboring Solana Beach School District has its own mitigation agreement with Pardee to purchase a 10-acre school property on Golden Cypress Place—their agreement is expected to be triggered in the third quarter of 2019.

Recently McClurg announced the latest development in their school facilities planning, which involves a proposal to combine the two Del Mar schools west of Interstate 5 and build the district’s eighth school in Pacific Highlands Ranch.

As these new facilities opportunities have rolled out, McClurg has been making the rounds holding face-to-face meetings at every district school in order to share information and gain input on their plans for reconfiguration and a new school. McClurg said during an April 6 meeting at Ashley Falls School that, as the district does not have funding to make the needed facilities improvements, they will consider going for a November 2018 bond.

The speed with which Pardee Homes is pulling permits and selling homes in Pacific Highlands Ranch is driving the quick timeline, McClurg said. Another press to the timeline are the “major” facilities needs at aging Del Mar Heights and Del Mar Hills Schools—the latest master plan revision showed it would take $80 million to refresh the two Del Mar campuses.

“We don’t think it makes sense to have two new schools with low enrollment and not have a new school where hundreds of homes are being built,” McClurg said, stating the district’s intention to place new schools where students actually reside.

Currently students living in Pacific Highlands Ranch are in the boundaries for Ashley Falls and Sycamore Ridge Schools but as those campuses have reached capacity, students are being sent to the two Del Mar campuses where there is room. Only about 560 students live west of the I-5 in Del Mar and about 250 students are coming in from the east.

The next face-to-face meeting with the superintendent will be held on Thursday, April 19 from 6-7 p.m. at Sycamore Ridge and McClurg said they value hearing what parents and the community is thinking about their plans.

“We do want to make the best decisions and do what’s right for the community and the district,” McClurg said.

McClurg said as the district has considered whether or not to build that Pacific Highlands Ranch School, residents have weighed in and strongly expressed a desire for a school in their neighborhood. Pardee has placed a sign for a “Proposed Del Mar Elementary School” on the lot and many at the April 6 meeting said that school was the reason they moved to the community; one resident even said a school was promised to him as a homebuyer and he would be very upset if one wasn’t built.

The school would be about 10 acres with a neighboring five-acre joint-use city park.

Traffic in Pacific Highlands Ranch is a major concern, as some residents living in DMUSD’s eastern-most boundary can spend up to 40 minutes to go the 3.5 miles to school on the jammed Carmel Valley Road.

School buses are not an option—“There is no funding for it,” McClurg said.

Neighboring San Dieguito Union High School District is dealing with the costs of maintaining its aging bus fleet, low ridership and a bus driver shortage that is industry-wide.

Parents were also concerned about Ashley Falls’ enrollment staying healthy, so it does not dip to low levels when students are no longer coming from PHR.

“Keeping Ashley Falls a thriving school is a top priority,” McClurg said, noting the intention is for the school to maintain a boundary of 400 to 500 students.

At Ashley Falls, there were some questions regarding the district’s Mello-Roos Community Facilities Districts, the money that is raised through special property taxes on homeowners to fund schools and infrastructure. Residents have wondered if the district needs a bond and if Pacific Highlands Ranch’s Mello-Roos fees could fund the new school.

“Mello-Roos was never meant to fund an entire school,” said McClurg.

In prior years, there was matching state funding for school districts for the purchase of land and the cost of construction. McClurg said Governor Jerry Brown has made it clear that school facilities funding needs to be addressed locally, which is why more districts look to place bond measures on the ballot.

“Pacific Highlands Ranch Mello-Roos would only generate 50 percent of what is needed to purchase the land from Pardee Homes and for the actual construction of the school,” McClurg said.

DMUSD’s potential bond would take care of all the facilities needs at all schools, McClurg said. The master plan estimates $198 million for all eight schools’ improvements, but that number would change if district moves forward with the reconfiguration and new PHR school as certain items wouldn’t be needed such as an extra classroom building at Ashley Falls.

McClurg said there is no proposed bond amount yet and no decisions have been made but there is a tax rate limit of $30 per $100,000 in assessed value for school district bonds. As an example, based on a tax rate of $25 per $100,000, a million dollar home in the district would have an annual tax bill of $250.

Without funding, McClurg said the district would need to go into its general fund to address its “significant” facilities needs. As 88 percent of the budget is personnel there is little room to cut and McClurg said they would be forced to increase class sizes.

Without bond funding, McClurg said they would likely use Pacific Highlands Ranch’s Mello-Roos funding to purchase portables to add to the blacktops and play space at Ashley Falls and Sycamore Ridge campuses to meet the enrollment needs.

“I just want to reiterate the importance of passing a bond,” said a Del Mar Heights parent. “If a bond doesn’t pass they’re going to have to go into the general education fund and class sizes district-wide will increase because the needs are so intense on the west side. The community will be less desirable and property values will go down…If it doesn’t pass, it will affect every district school.”

The district’s last attempt at a general obligation bond in 2012 was for $76.8 million. It received 53.7 percent of the vote, short of the 55 percent approval rate required.

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