Del Mar residents question proposed closure of Del Mar Hills

As the Del Mar Union School District continues its outreach efforts on reconfiguring its Del Mar school campuses, some residents are requesting that the district slow its process down and encouraged Del Mar City Council to get involved and take a stand against closing Del Mar Hills Academy.

A group of Del Mar residents has gathered almost 360 signatures in support of their effort and brought their concerns before City Council on May 21. While it was not on the agenda, Mayor Dwight Worden said he’s heard from many constituents concerned about the potential reconfiguration and recommended that Council write a letter asking the school district to hold off on approving any plan until the city has a chance to be a part of the discussion.

The Council was hoping to deliver its request before the Del Mar Union School District (DMUSD)’s May 23 meeting in which the board was scheduled to vote on a revised facilities master plan that includes closing Del Mar Hills and building a new Del Mar school as well as a new school in Pacific Highlands Ranch to address shifts in enrollment and student residency.

Parents such as Michael Yanicelli said they would be requesting that the DMUSD board postpone its vote in order to allow the community to learn more about options that would not involve closing Del Mar Hills.

“The plan, which has been put together very quickly, is still basically opaque to the community, it’s very difficult for parents, even after asking many questions, to understand what’s going on here,” said Del Mar Heights parent David Victor.

Victor said there are concerns that the irreversible decision to close Del Mar Hills and combine the schools would result in a loss of open space, increased traffic and that the new Del Mar campus would become a much larger “mega school” and parents would lose the charm and the choice between the two small schools.

“This is going to have a tangible, negative impact on life here in Del Mar and on the quality of education we’ve come to expect,” Victor said.

Yanicelli said if the realignment plan is approved, it will set in motion a plan for financing likely in the form of a public bond.

“It’s happened so quickly that it’s not allowed us to understand the impacts that it will have,” Yanicelli said. “We need to be able to discuss the details and we need the school district to understand what the community wants and what the community is going to need before they take a bond to a vote or else the bond will fail.

“When the bond fails, we lose our opportunity to improve our schools. And to be clear, our schools are failing apart. We need them to be rebuilt but we don’t want it to be done at the expense of losing one of our campuses.”

The Del Mar Union School District has stated that community input is valuable while acknowledging that this latest adjustment in plans has been very quick—the timeline has moved up as homes are being built more rapidly in Pacific Highlands Ranch and the two aging Del Mar schools are in need of major facilities upgrades. 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 in Pacific Highlands Ranch reaches 1,565 units. That threshold is fast approaching.

“We are at a crossroads right now where some very important decisions need to be made,” said DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg at a May 14 town hall at Sycamore Ridge School. “We need to maintain that program that we know makes a difference for kids, that matters to this community and address our very urgent facilities needs.”

The district has conducted “extensive” outreach which included four community town hall meetings in May and numerous stakeholder meetings with parents and school site staff since March—the Superintendent’s Advisory Council for Facilities Improvement has also met five times since January to discuss facilities needs.

“School facilities are community property,” said Jason Romero, assistant superintendent of human resources. “We’re really in the discovery phase, getting authentic voices about which way we want to go.”

The idea to place schools where DMUSD students actually reside is where the reconfiguration idea was born. The district’s enrollment is flat and the only area of growth is in Pacific Highlands Ranch, where they are generating about 1,450 students and there is no school. Romero said only about 600 students live west of Interstate-5 in Del Mar and that number could be less as about 10 percent attend private schools.

McClurg said it no longer makes sense to have two schools in Del Mar, both of them in need of being completely reconstructed at a cost of $80 million and both of them under enrollment capacity. The new reconfiguration plan would combine the two Del Mar schools west of I-5 into one “Del Mar West” campus on the Del Mar Heights site on Boquita Drive.

McClurg said that the new school will not be a “mega school” and estimates it would be about 650 students. Del Mar Hills currently has an enrollment of about 300 students while Heights has about 500 students—Romero said about 250 students are being sent from Pacific Highlands Ranch to the Del Mar schools as they are the only ones under enrollment capacity.

At a May 21 town hall at Del Mar Heights, parents learned more about different options for construction of the new Del Mar West estimated to cost $51.3 million; the costs of improvements without reconfiguration; and the improvements that could be made to the Boquita site’s parking lot configuration and ingress/egress.

Heights has the smallest egress/ingress of all of the DMUSD sites and staff shared how new configurations could bring 85 parking spaces to the tiny parking lot and an extended drop-off and pick-up queue that could help get cars off Boquita and Del Mar streets.

The district also addressed the concerns about the loss of the space at the Del Mar Hills site if the school closes. Assistant Superintendent Chris Delahanty said that the school site on Mango Drive is a valuable community hub with park and playground space and fields that see more than 4,200 hours of use by community sports teams. The district has maintained that it would like to see that space remain as green space—Delahanty said the district would not be served by the land being developed into something like multi-family housing.

“We want to make sure we set the community up to have the hub it wants and deserves,” Delahanty said.

Del Mar Heights Principal Wendy Wardlow may affectionately refer to their campus as “beach bungalows and learning cottages” but she said the truth is some of the portables are 50 years old and have significant problems—they have had to be evacuated due to rodent infestations and there has been flooding which has prompted concerns about mold and air quality.

Without reconfiguration, replacing the portables with new portables would cost $5.1 million, replacing the portables with upgraded modular buildings would cost $6.2 million, and replacing them with permanent buildings would cost $8.9 million.

McClurg said there is no budget to fund the district’s facilities needs which include not just the aging Del Mar facilities but needs across all district sites. 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.

There is also no funding for new construction from the state as the governor has stated that facilities funding must be addressed locally. 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.

A bond is an option for consideration for funding but the board has not made any decisions, McClurg said.

At the town hall meeting, attendees were assured that no reconfiguration decisions have been made but some community members felt that the district has already set down the path of closing Hills and building the new Del Mar West. Some parents say that there has not been enough consideration about the impact on the quality of life, the effect of the expanded school size on the students, and the safety of kids having to cross Del Mar Heights Road to get to school.

“There’s a lot of worry that this could be a really large school and really degrade Del Mar,” said a Del Mar Heights parent who herself attended Del Mar Hills as a child. “I definitely feel the community’s kids deserve better. It would be terrible to put a bond forward and not have it passed. The community wants to get behind it and we want a bond to be successful but we need to figure a few things out.”