Following a facilities workshop on June 11, the Del Mar Union School District board will revisit its revised 2018 facilities master plan, which includes plans for a new school in Pacific Highlands Ranch and the reconfiguration of the two Del Mar campuses, closing Del Mar Hills Academy. The eight-school plan, with modifications that address usage of the property at the Del Mar Hills Academy location, will again be up for board approval on Wednesday, June 27.
The proposed reconfiguration plan seeks to tackle the facilities challenges the district faces with its two oldest campuses, Del Mar Hills and Del Mar Heights Schools. In the plan, the Hills would close and a new “Del Mar West” campus would be built on the Boquita Drive property with a capacity of 650 students. Del Mar Hills currently has an enrollment of about 300 students, while Heights has about 500 students with about 180 students coming from east of I-5.
The plan addresses enrollment shifts by placing schools where students are residing. According to district staff, Hills and Heights are under enrollment capacity while in Pacific Highlands Ranch 2,500 homes are being built, generating over 500 students and there is no school in that area.
At the May 23 board meeting, DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg advised that the board not approve the master plan after hearing 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 its impacts.
However since that meeting, McClurg said they have taken additional input, hearing support districtwide for the concepts in the revised master plan, concerns about school closure and deadlines for land acquisition in Pacific Highlands Ranch. McClurg said staff heard a sense of urgency about the funding by deciding not to go forward with the bond on the November ballot, discussion of a ninth school and whether or not it is fiscally viable, and what would happen on the Hills site asset if it was not used for a school.
Several parents at the meeting urged the board to approve the master plan so the district can move forward on the funding phase, in the form of a bond.
The Ocean Air PTA executive board passed a resolution supporting the master plan, although as the district’s newest school they stand to benefit the least.
“We support reconfiguration because we believe it is the best way to address the needs of all children across our district,” read Ocean Air PTA representative Christene Renner.
Per the resolution, the Ocean Air PTA executive board supports the plan’s ideas that DMUSD only needs eight schools to remain fiscally responsible—they are concerned that the costs of portables on Sycamore Ridge and Ashley Falls School campuses to address Pacific Highlands Ranch growth and costly repairs of aging facilities would “jeopardize our district’s most important assets: a commitment to small class sizes and retention of our highly qualified and trained teachers,” the resolution read.
Tricia Dixon, a member of the Del Mar Heights PTA executive board, said she is in full support of the master plan as it stands and like the Ocean Air PTA believes it is the best option to address the needs of the entire district.
“While I love our school and community culture, I personally see the need for this place to be bulldozed,” Dixon said, speaking of a campus with portables abandoned due to rat infestations, students wearing jackets inside all day because the heat doesn’t work, a lack of lunch tables and aging facilities that could pose safety risks. “The school is not a reflection of the community of which it resides… there is no longer a need for two schools in Del Mar. A complete rebuild shouldn’t be up for debate, we need a new school west of the 5.”
Parent Darren Gretler, who spent time on the effort for a bond with a team from Ocean Air, said without a bond he is worried about the consequences on the kids and the classrooms as significant facilities needs will have to come out of the general fund. Personnel costs comprise 88 percent of the district’s budget and increasing class sizes is more than a scare tactic, but a real threat, parents said.
“I’m disappointed and frustrated with your inaction on the bond and the facilities master plan as a step toward the bond,” Gretler told the board. “Your words say that you need the bond, you need new facilities. Your actions demonstrate that you don’t.”
Few argued with the point that Pacific Highlands Ranch needs a neighborhood school—parents have said they face 30-minute commutes to get kids to school and the population continues to grow as more homes are built. The district has an agreement with Pardee Homes to purchase a 10-acre lot on Solterra Vista Parkway—a new Pacific Highlands Ranch school would cost about $10 million for the land acquisition and $44.5 million for construction— Mello Roos fees cover just half of that cost.
“We need to buy the land in Pacific Highlands Ranch no matter what the cost, no matter what the obstacle,” said parent Kathy Wong. “If we miss the opportunity, there is nowhere else to build.”
At the June 11 meeting, the board approved an environmental site analysis of the Pardee Homes site to ensure it is viable prior to looking toward a purchase.
Del Mar Hills Academy parents spoke up about saving their school and several Del Mar parents again expressed their concerns about a new “mega school” and the impacts of a larger school west of I-5, particularly with the challenging egress and ingress on Boquita Drive.
Del Mar Heights parent David Victor said the Del Mar community would not support a bond unless the district articulates that the Hills property will be preserved as a community asset as well as including a site utilization and design of the new school at the Heights property.
“I understand this is a difficult process and passions are high but I have not met a single person who’s comfortable with how this unfolded,” Victor said. ”This is really important, so we got to find a better way to work together.”
Del Mar Hills parent Tom Sohn argued that closing Del Mar Hills solves a short-term problem on the backs of the kids of Hills and Heights. He said the district has not accounted for enrollment to grow in Del Mar when houses turn over or the impact of the One Paseo project’s 608 residential units. Studies performed by DMUSD back in 2013-14 projected combined enrollments of the Hills and Heights as greater than 750 students. The district’s current estimates show Hills/Heights enrollment projections at around 600 students (a peak of 624 projecting a larger number of kindergarten enrollment) through 2025.
As of June 19, the newly-formed community group District, Accountability, Responsibility and Transparency (DART) began circulating a petition asking that the master plan be revised to include the purchase of land in PHR, the building of a new ninth school on that property and to rebuild and renovate both Del Mar Heights and Hills. The coalition believes that a bond is not necessary of the purchase of the land or the construction of the school.
“I love Del Mar Hills,” said parent Brooke Beros. “Change is really hard, no one is very comfortable with change. I think you’ve heard from a lot of people who were initially opposed to the idea of the bond and I do think that large number of Hills families would support a bond if there was language in it that required Hills property be set aside as green space for the length of the bond. No one wants to come forward and be excited about the idea of their school closing. However, the Hills situation as it stands is untenable.”
Moving forward, the board faces tough decisions but they are doing so with an engaged community. Over 360 people signed a petition to slow the master plan process down and pursue options that did not include the closure of Del Mar Hills and 400 signed a petition urging the district to build the PHR school. There are no longer “meetings to crickets” as trustee Scott Wooden once described the initial facilities meetings—the last few meetings, the board has played to packed houses.
“As any leader knows it is impossible to please everyone, it is impossible to have the complete consensus that I know you desire. Rather, a leader must do what’s best for the most people in their care, for the most common good. In this case: facilities for all, small class sizes for all, retaining quality teachers for all and high quality education…any nine-school plan makes it impossible,” said Lisa Kradjian, an Ocean Air parent. “This plan will work. Continue to put the needs of overall district ahead of one subset’s needs no matter how vocal they are. Please see your collective vision through that has been years in the making and years in the refining so that dialogue and planning can continue and options can remain open before it is too late.”
The master plan and all of the district’s presentations on facilities are available online at dmusd.org under the school facilities tab.