Del Mar Union School District reconfiguration plan not approved

The DMUSD board did not approve a facilities master plan with a reconfiguration of the Del Mar schools. The district faces facilities needs at the two aging schools and needs a Pacific Highlands Ranch school to meet population growth.
(Karen Billing)

After two months of outreach on a proposed reconfiguration of Del Mar Union School District schools, Superintendent Holly McClurg recommended that the board not pursue the option to close Del Mar Hills Academy and build a new Del Mar West campus.

At the May 23 meeting, the board was scheduled to vote on a revised facilities master plan that included the reconfiguration and a new East Pacific Highlands Ranch school to address enrollment shifts and student residency.

A Del Mar Hills student holds a sign at the board meeting. Karen Billing

At a series of town halls over the week before the meeting, McClurg said they heard input that the timeline was too fast, that fewer people residing west of I-5 supported the reconfiguration idea and many had concerns about the size of a new Del Mar school and how it would impact traffic. Over 360 people had signed a petition against the closure of Del Mar Hills and the Del Mar City Council also wrote a letter asking the district to delay.

“The majority of the community members responding and participating supported the components of the 2018 facilities master plan, however, some have raised concerns about closing one of the schools on the west. These concerns, without consensus, compromise the facilities master plan and it is staff’s recommendation that you not approve the facilities master plan at this time. It is also staff’s recommendation that we not go forward with a bond measure for 2018.

“We need to know that the community wants us to move forward with a general obligation bond,” McClurg said, to the applause of a multi-use room packed with parents at Del Mar Hills.

“In order to address our significant facilities needs and issues with enrollment we must seriously look at how to move forward with what is most urgent. We cannot go forward with a facilities master plan until our community can agree upon a consensus solution to our facilities challenges,” McClurg said. “I am ready to work with whoever is willing to continue the conversation in pursuit of a consensus solution because that is what is required to move forward.”

During the two hours of public comment, a group of young Del Mar Hills students spoke in favor of saving their school where they attend with their best friends.

“To some school is just a school but to us, it’s another home from home,” the girls said, holding signs.

Del Mar parents who had come to the meeting armed with “barn burner” speeches against any closures issued words of appreciation instead.

“I want to thank you guys for listening…what you guys did took courage,” said parent Tom Sohn. “I encourage all of us now to fulfill the obligation that we all just put on ourselves, to not just point out the problem but to be part of the solution.”

One thing heard during the outreach process and during the meeting was that parents do not want the district to miss the opportunity to purchase land in Pacific Highlands Ranch. Parents there are pleading for a neighborhood school—due to traffic congestion on Carmel Valley Road, many students have over 35-minute commutes to travel the three-some miles to Ashley Falls or Sycamore Ridge School where they attend class in portables. Pacific Highlands Ranch residents have now gathered 449 signatures on a petition to urge the district to move forward toward a ninth district school.

“I’m very disappointed in the decision you’ve made,” said parent Fuxiao Xin. “I’m here tonight to ask for help. Help, help, please help. We need a neighborhood school…35 minutes to go to a portable classroom, that’s not the education we chose when we bought our houses in Carmel Valley.”

Parents like Makoto Ferguson said they were envious of the Del Mar Hills children and how much they treasure going to school with their best friends and neighbors, when in their community, students must travel to go wherever there is capacity, sometimes not at the same school.

“I was really moved by the little ones, talking about how much they love their school, “ said Gee Wah Mok. “I just want the same for my child. I think it’s only fair that we have something in our community.”

Residents posted their own signage at the proposed site of the PHR school on Solterra Vista Parkway. Courtesy

After the meeting, a sign popped up on the signage marking the future school site on Solterra Vista Parkway reading: “Don’t be fooled, DMUSD hasn’t purchased the land yet.” The district has a school facilities mitigation agreement with Pardee Homes to purchase the 10-acre lot once the number of permits issued reaches 1,565 units, a number that may be met in the coming months. A new Pacific Highlands Ranch school would cost about $10 million for the land and $44.5 million for construction— Mello Roos covers just half of that cost. McClurg said the district will continue to research options regarding the land acquisition and school construction.

“If a bond is not on the ballot this year it doesn’t mean we aren’t going to pursue that other property,” said trustee Doug Rafner. “We’re keeping our eye on the ball.”

“The eight school option did make sense… but there are other plans that make sense too and we’re here as a board to find something that works for the whole community,” trustee Scott Wooden said.

Wooden said he would recommend that the district pursue a nine school option, not losing the option to purchase the land in Pacific Highlands Ranch.

Trustee Erica Halpern noted that time is running out on a 2018 bond and the next opportunity to pursue bond funding would be in 2020.

“I am very sad that we are missing this window and I’m worried about what it will mean for our kids,” Halpern said.

Halpern said there are still serious concerns about the district’s facilities expenses impacting the district’s educational program, which includes preserving low class sizes and keeping teachers and staff which makes up 88 percent of the budget. Already the district is facing losing four STEAM + teachers next year due to shortfalls in fundraising.

“We know that facilities expenses are mounting as our buildings age and deteriorate and we have very limited resources to address them. The problem gets worse as we continue kicking the can down the road,” said Halpern, who is a parent to three district children in Del Mar. “I”m happy that so many people are here now and are engaged in a dialogue on this issue because it desperately needs a solution. This is an issue that should engage the entire community not only because it's the right thing to do for our children but because having top-notch schools with low class sizes is a big part of what makes this a community where people want to live.”

Another thing parents stressed during public comment was that the efforts to save Del Mar Hills were never about not supporting a ninth school in Pacific Highlands Ranch. Several parents spoke about not wanting the district to pit parents against each other in an “east vs. west” battle.

“I want there to be a ninth school,” said Allison Fomon, a Del Mar Hills parent. “We all have a common interest. Together we can support each other.”

Parent Jeannie Thomas, who served on the superintendent’s advisory committee, said it was great to see the community engaged and the room full. She noted that when McClurg started holding face-to-face meetings on the facilities plans, the rooms were empty.

“I’m super proud of this community coming together,” Thomas said. “It’s been so positive and that’s what I was hoping for. I’m thrilled that so many people have agreed that we want to help everyone in the district and I’m hopeful that all these people who have come out here truly stay involved.”

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