The Del Mar Union School District (DMUSD) board is now moving ahead with a facilities plan to operate nine district schools, keeping both Del Mar schools and building a new school in East Pacific Highlands Ranch. On July 16, the board unanimously approved the nine-school option and will target the November 2018 election for a general obligation bond to meet its facilities needs district-wide.
The decision is a departure from reconfiguration plans that were floated and discussed over the last several months, as well as a facilities master plan approved on June 27 that left the plans for the two Del Mar schools open-ended, just retaining them as “district assets.”
DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said that while an eight-school district was presented as the most fiscally responsible option by a superintendent’s advisory committee, a nine-school option was never off the table. Some parents felt that the process lacked transparency and was rushed but McClurg said throughout the “comprehensive process with significant outreach and extensive collaboration” district staff maintained that no decisions had been made and each part of the process informed the July 16 recommendation.
“We heard loudly and clearly that an eight-school option meant closing one of our existing schools or not building a school in east Pacific Highlands Ranch and we heard that was depriving one community of a gathering place, of an identity, of their community school,” McClurg said. “We understand when our community says ‘We need our school’.”
The nine-school option includes rebuilding Del Mar Heights School as a 450-500-student school, modernizing Del Mar Hills Academy as a 300-350-student school, building the new school in Pacific Highlands Ranch on Solterra Vista Parkway and potentially locating district departments and programs such as the Early Childhood Development Center and district cafeteria on the Hills campus.
“This plan is the best plan, it creates community schools, it creates a togetherness, it creates an opportunity for us to have an amazing school district for our students,” said DMUSD Assistant Superintendent Jason Romero.
Romero said the district has looked at ways to offset the $1.9 million estimated cost to run the ninth school in Pacific Highlands Ranch such as strategic staffing, shared administration, a reduction of an assistant principal and installing solar panels at all district sites (for an estimated $9 million) that would generate about 75 percent savings in energy costs or $600,000 annually.
“I think the eight-school reconfiguration was the most responsible fiscally and in the best interest of all children,” DMUSD President Kristin Gibson said, noting she believes that the concerns heard from parents could have been addressed and the majority would have been pleased with the result. “Reconfiguration is no longer the best plan without the support that we needed to have. If we have a new best plan that creatively minimizes the ongoing cost of the nine schools, I think operating nine schools and the goodwill that will create and satisfaction level of the communities will outweigh some of the financial risks that the plan poses.”
DMUSD Trustee Doug Rafner was the sole vote against the facilities master plan in June as he believed a plan that did not address the Del Mar campuses was a “green banana,” it just wasn’t ready.
“This option really does give us a more ripened look at what the facilities master plan would be, there’s nothing that’s left out in limbo…we know what we’re doing at all school sites,” Rafner said. “I feel much more comfortable with this plan than I did with the last one presented.”
Rafner said that everything is dependent on the passage of a bond because without it, the board was just voting on a piece of paper. DMUSD Trustee Erica Halpern agreed, that in order to generate the support they need for a bond district-wide, they need a plan that is specific.
Halpern said she always looks toward preserving the district’s educational program which to her means making sure major facilities expenses are not coming out of the operating budget that they need for teachers.
“There’s no question that nine schools will be more expensive than eight schools but what’s even more expensive than nine schools is potentially very big chunks of money coming out (of the operating budget) very soon as we start to have to replace portables or make emergency repairs,” Halpern said. “The bottom line is passing the bond is the best thing we can do to protect our educational program.”
DMUSD Trustee Scott Wooden said he believes that the nine-school option is probably the best on the table but had some concerns about the financial implications. He wanted to caution that the district is not relying on “overly optimistic” projections of high increases in property tax revenue as they look ahead at their budget—he said that is what is getting San Dieguito Union High School District in trouble.
DMUSD Assistant Superintendent Cathy Birks said they remain very conservative in their projections.
During public comment, several parents spoke in favor of the nine- school plan—Del Mar Heights parent Michael Yanicelli thanked the district for listening and for their willingness to be open to the feedback they received over the last few months.
“I think you will find a groundswell of support across the district,” Yanicelli said.
Del Mar parent Victor Neiman called the nine-school option the “peace and love” plan, an opportunity to turn people who had been unhappy and highly negative about the previous plan into highly motivated advocates for the bond.
Some parents expressed concerns about the viability of operating nine schools after they had been told over the past few months that eight schools was the most fiscally responsible.
“I’m cautious right now,” said parent Sarah Sargen, who said she worried that the cost savings won’t add up to the $1.9 million cost of operating the ninth school. “I do really want the school in Pacific Highlands Ranch but I’m not sure this is the compromise that makes the most sense.”
At the meeting, the district’s bond consultant Adam Bauer of Fieldman, Rolapp and Associates said a successful Prop 39 general obligation bond would allow the district to fund $73.3 million for new school construction in two parts of the district in early 2019 at a tax rate limit of $29.25 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. A 2018 bond would allow new series of bonds to be issued in 2019, 2022, 2025 and 2028.
To call for the bond, the board would have to adopt a resolution with the maximum dollar amount and a project list. The resolution would need to be submitted by Aug. 10. The board’s next regular meeting is July 25 and they would likely have a special board meeting prior to Aug. 10.
During public comment, parent Linda Liu expressed some concerns about the bond not passing, that she felt it was too much money and that 90 percent of the voters do not have children in the district.
Wooden agreed that the district will face some “headwinds” in passing the bond, such as increasing the tax rate from $25 to $29 and that a nine-school option may be perceived as less fiscally responsible. Rafner said that it will take a grassroots effort to get the bond passed—several parents said they hope to come together now, instead of being divided by the previous plan.
McClurg stated that the district has always been diligent about the budget, looking at the revenues coming in, prioritizing and spending wisely. She said throughout the process they have shown options for the district with and without additional funding—without a bond, any significant repairs or new construction will have to come out of the general fund where 88 percent of the budget is personnel and they would be forced to increase class sizes. McClurg said that will be the choice that voters have to make.
“I am very, very concerned if there’s not an additional revenue source,” McClurg said. “We have significant facility needs and we do not have another revenue source.”