Education Matters: Community pushback forces retreat on school facilities plan

Either the Del Mar Union School District badly misjudged the attitude of the community, forgot to advise the city of Del Mar, or pushed too suddenly for a newly revised Facilities Master Plan and a General Obligation bond. Or all of the above.

After more than a dozen community meetings scheduled in a frenzied pace this past month, DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg without warning announced at the May 23 board meeting that she was withdrawing the scheduled vote to approve the new facilities plan and would no longer recommend a GO bond at this time.

To a packed audience, the news was received with cheers.

The new master plan called for the demolition of the two K-6 schools west of the I-5 freeway, Del Mar Heights and Del Mar Hills, with a new single school to be erected on the DM Heights site to serve the entire student population residing west of I-5.

The Heights, located at the dead end of a cul-de-sac, has been beset by often intolerable traffic congestion. With only one way in and the same way out, this issue is not new. But when parents learned of the plan for a new school with a larger student population, their concerns over congestion grew more compelling.

McClurg’s attempts to reassure residents and parents that new designs would help alleviate the congestion were met with deep skepticism.

Concerns were also raised about the size of the single school. Others were upset about the closing of DM Hills, a viewpoint hardly new to anyone with historical perspective. Hills parents love their little school, and they have always been very vocal about saving it.

Finally, to not consult with the city of Del Mar and its residents well in advance of proposing such a dramatic shift in plans was an oversight that resulted in a concerned city council sending a request to the school district to delay the vote on the master plan.

The city of Del Mar has residents who remember when there were no elementary schools east of I-5, in fact when there was no Carmel Valley.

As more and more DMUSD schools were built in Carmel Valley to accommodate the growing student population, it became apparent that the “little Del Mar school community” was losing its special charm.

The last straw for many was when the district office closed at the Shores site on Ninth Street in Del Mar and relocated to Carmel Valley in a nondescript office building.

Some were asking what’s “Del Mar” any longer about the Del Mar Union School District.

Some history

We’ve been here before.

Nearly 10 years ago, when the school district’s Shores property was being sold to the city of Del Mar, a “7-11” committee was formed to explore options for the location of a new district office.

According to the 7-11 committee, the Hills was considered suitable for district office needs, with adequate square footage, good access, and no joint-use agreements that exist at Carmel Valley schools.

Furthermore, the Hills and Heights properties are unique in that they are fully owned by the school district.

Despite the Hills being under-utilized, the district decided to buy office space in Carmel Valley.

People went ballistic over a column I wrote in 2009 that suggested that the Hills be turned into a district office, complete with a pre-school and serving students in kindergarten and first grade. The Heights could then serve students in grades 2-6.

This option seemed an ideal way to utilize existing property, maximize available facility space, and save money.

It was clear that the two school communities were working against one another and competing to attract students. Combining the two schools in this way would have united the two communities by bringing together all parents and students residing west of I-5.

But alas it was not to be. And now there is no going back.

Under-estimating community resistance

The new Facilities Master Plan also included the construction of a new school in Pacific Highlands Ranch. Residents in those neighborhoods were not exactly thrilled with the new plan either.

Many expressed alarm at the district’s claim that a GO bond was needed that would tax homeowners to pay for the two new schools, when homeowners in Carmel Valley and Pacific Highlands Ranch are already paying Mello-Roos fees for school construction.

And the likelihood of the bond receiving the needed 55 percent this November was also in doubt, after a paid survey firm reported that chances were slim.

“A district-wide measure at the current level of support has significant risk of not passing,” said Adam Sonenshein, vice president of FM3 Research and Associates, to the school board back in February.

The district did correct one mistake it made when it placed a bond measure on the 2012 ballot without a Facilities Master Plan and no specific cost estimates in place. That effort failed.

This time, in preparation for another bond, the district did take time to develop a facilities plan that provided estimated costs for improvements, so the community could see where the money would go.

Unfortunately, the master plan changed at the last minute, the decision to demolish the Hills and Heights was sprung on stakeholders, and support – such as it was – evaporated.

Principal resignation

Speaking of Del Mar Heights, I would be remiss if I did not mention the bittersweet news that long-time Heights principal Wendy Wardlow announced her retirement at the end of this school year.

Eighteen years ago, Wardlow came into the school like a breath of fresh air. She was upbeat, enthusiastic and determined to create a culture at the Heights that would unite her parent community after several trying years of disharmony and growing pains.She succeeded famously.

As a former parent and fervent Wendy admirer, I saw her develop programs that were unique and pushed the boundaries of what Del Mar schools had done up to that point.

Even after careful, thoughtful planning, she was not always successful, done in by political pressure and the sheer novelty of her ideas.

But she never lost faith or gave up trying new, innovative approaches to enhance learning for her students and to create an educational environment where individual students could excel and thrive.

Her courage and force of will are legendary.

She was determined to make the world a better place for kids and make her kids into empathetic leaders for the world they are inheriting.

Wardlow was fiercely loyal to her staff, and they to her. Her school was “like a second home” to her, as she described it, and her staff a second family.

The district will find a new principal, but Wendy Wardlow can never really be replaced. We wish her well in her retirement, and will miss her dearly.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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