DMUSD plans to combine Hills, Heights and pursue 2018 bond

The Del Mar Union School District (DMUSD) unveiled a new plan to deal with its facilities issues that includes combining Del Mar Hills and Del Mar Heights schools into one brand new school. In the proposal, both Del Mar Hills and Del Mar Heights would no longer exist and a new school with a new name would be built on one of the two campus sites west of Interstate 5.

According to DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg, no decisions have been made yet but the board has given direction to pursue reconfiguration and a November 2018 general obligation bond to fund the reconstruction, as well as a new Pacific Highlands Ranch school to address the significant growth in the eastern portion of the district.

The announcement appeared to come suddenly for many in the community as the district recently completed a master plan refresh that made no mention of combining the two campuses. McClurg said the recent development was built on years of conversation and the work of a superintendent’s advisory council continuing to look at what is best for the district. She said it no longer makes sense to have two schools west of Interstate 5, both of them in need of being completely reconstructed and both of them are under enrollment capacity but not in a location where students are actually residing.

Where the district is seeing the most enrollment growth is in Pacific Highlands Ranch, while only 560 students live west of the I-5 in Del Mar.

Students that live in the district’s portion of Pacific Highlands Ranch are in the attendance boundary for Ashley Falls Elementary School and Sycamore Ridge Elementary School, facing 40 minutes in the car to go 3.5 miles due to the challenging traffic in the area. DMUSD Assistant Superintendent Jason Romero said that Ashley Falls and Sycamore Ridge are now full, so about 250 students are being sent from PHR to the Del Mar schools as they are the only ones under enrollment capacity. Del Mar Hills has an enrollment of about 300 students while Heights has about 500 students.

“What has been determined is that this district needs eight schools, we do not need an additional school, both for educational programming reasons as well as being fiscally responsible,” McClurg said. “Our board as they look at these issues has said that they highly value this district as a whole. Our board has no desire of dividing up the district. They do not want to see a district where certain parts of the community have a new school and others have something old and crumbling. They don’t want to see a district where there’s haves and have nots…Every student and every school should have quality facilities now and into the future.”

As far as the need for a bond, McClurg said there is no budget to fund the district’s significant facilities needs. McClurg said they have rats in the aging portables at Heights, roofing issues at multiple school sites and one of their newer schools, 11-year-old Sage Canyon, just had to completely replace its heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Any significant repairs or new construction would have to come out of the general fund. 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, negatively impacting students. There is also no funding for new construction from the state as the governor has stated that facilities funding must be addressed locally.

“We have an excellent educational program that we don’t want sacrificed for facilities,” McClurg said of the district’s math program that ranks third in the state and the English language arts program ranks fifth.

McClurg said as soon as the board made the decision on reconfiguration, they wanted to get in front of the community right away, meeting with staff on March 28 and holding information sessions at the two schools, including two sessions on April 3. As stakeholder input is important, McClurg plans to hold face-to-face meetings at all school sites over the next month and a town hall meeting in May.

“We’re very interested in hearing ideas to help us make the best decision for the district,” McClurg said.

The district has until August to place a bond on the November ballot. A recent poll of district voters showed that support for a potential $198 million bond is right at 55 percent necessary to pass. Passing a bond could be a challenge as in February the district’s consulting firm of FM3 Research and Associates told the board that a district-wide measure at the current level of support has “significant risk of not passing.”

McClurg said the decision has not yet been made on which school site will be used for the new school. The feedback that McClurg has received is that the Hills site is less desirable due to its proximity to the I-5 and the additional encroachment that will occur as part of the expansion and the flyover ramps to SR-56. The connector ramps will bring the freeway within 57 feet of the school property.

McClurg said the district’s intent is that whichever location is not developed as a new school would remain green space and field space for the community.

“I don’t take this lightly and I know that our board is really serious about these decisions,” McClurg said. “I also think it’s a chance to take advantage of an opportunity and a place in time to really do some great things and to make some decisions that the community can be excited about.”

At the April 3 afternoon meeting at Del Mar Hills, parent Juli Oh said it was very disappointing to find out the reconfiguration news on the site Nextdoor, from a post titled “Del Mar Hills closing.” She said she still has emotional scars from the last time the district went through a facilities process years ago, when a Del Mar Hills closure was on the table.

“There is something lovely about all of the community’s kids being together in one school but I just don’t feel like this got off to a great start,” Oh said of the process.

Many parents had questions about the timeline—which McClurg said begins now. Ideally, a bond would pass in November and planning would begin for new school construction which would take about two to three years from start to finish, she said. Parents also had initial concerns about the civic impact of having one Del Mar school, including the impact to traffic on the already challenging Heights site as well as the traffic flow across Del Mar Heights Road and the ability for students to be able to continue to be able to walk to school safely.

“I’m not happy with this concept at all,” said one Del Mar Hills parent. “I’m old enough to remember when Del Mar Hills and Del Mar Heights were the only two schools in the district and part of the charm is the small size…In my mind there is no way you can create a mega-school without losing that character. There’s a reason that a lot of families chose to live here, it’s a strong reason why I moved my family closer to here because of the small school that we can walk to.”

The parent said she was trying to separate her emotions from the overall needs of the district but she said this new plan feels too sudden and rushed.

“I know this is one district but I feel like we’re kind of being trounced on by the other side,” she said.

McClurg noted that the new school will not be a “mega-school” but one with about 600 students.

She said she appreciated the parents’ comments as part of what makes the district is so unique are the things you can’t put a price tag on, “the strong sense of loyalty, love and identity” at every school. She said there will be a loss in whatever the new school configuration will look like and that will be a part of the considerations and process moving forward.

“Whatever’s created, the kids will love. The warmth and the character you talk about, in the new place, the people will create that,” McClurg said. “That’s created by the people, not the building.”

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