The Del Mar Union School District board approved a revised facilities master plan on June 27, a meeting that included over 60 public comments and lasted until midnight. The revised plan set the stage for the board to vote on pursuing a November 2018 bond and included Superintendent Holly McClurg and staff’s recommended priorities: purchase the land in Pacific Highlands Ranch and construct the new school; retain the two Del Mar school properties as district assets; establish a district-wide committee to continue analysis of optimal uses of the Del Mar properties; and implement renovations at all district schools.
The vote was not unanimous with board member Doug Rafner voting against the plan.
“This facilities master plan does not work unless the bond measure is passed,” said Rafner, adding that it didn’t make sense to approve a plan and forge ahead without knowing what the committee would decide regarding Del Mar. “What we’re looking at is a green banana, it’s just not ready…We’re waiting for a committee to tell us what we should do on the west and I don’t know if that’s a proper way to move forward.”
Rafner said he firmly supported moving forward with Pacific Highlands Ranch and he doesn’t want to delay a bond but he also doesn’t want to lose without having Del Mar’s support. He thought after the May meeting that the board was going to move forward with the purchase of the PHR property, get the school plans shovel ready and wait until March 2020 to pursue a bond.
“I’d like to see us take more shots on goal for a bond,” trustee Scott Wooden said, noting that they could try for a bond in both 2018 and 2020.
McClurg pointed out that the approved facilities master plan (FMP), which includes $199 million of facilities improvements across the district, does not state that any school will necessarily be closed and nine district schools remains an option. The plan does include an estimate for a new “Del Mar West” school on the Boquita Drive location at $51 million.
“I do feel comfortable with the plan because I think it does allows us to move forward quickly with Pacific Highlands Ranch and it leaves the door open to the potential of operating nine schools,” DMUSD President Kristin Gibson said.
Many parents in the crowd urged the board to move forward with the plan to begin the funding phase, to build the Pacific Highlands Ranch school that is needed to meet a growing student population, to provide equitable facilities for all children and protect the district’s “most valuable” assets like small class sizes and staff.
“We want our school now, we want our school yesterday,” said Pacific Highlands Ranch parent Gee Wah Mok.
Del Mar parent Michael Yanicelli compared the process to a “rollercoaster” since the plans for reconfiguration were first announced in March. During public comment, many from the Del Mar community expressed confusion and frustration about the “vague” plan for the two Del Mar sites, a process they felt was not transparent and rushed. Many stated that a bond would not pass without Del Mar’s support—“Make no mistake the community of Del Mar will not vote to raise their own taxes and close their own neighborhood school,” Del Mar Hills parent Julie Reynolds said.
“This is a facilities master scam and you should not approve it,” urged Del Mar’s Estela de Llanos, who was involved in the fight to save Del Mar Hills nearly 10 years ago.
Her comment received extended, loud applause.
McClurg said that staff will come back in July with a priority project list for a potential bond, which Gibson said will somehow address the decisions regarding the Del Mar facilities that have not been made.
“I would not be bringing anything before you that I did not think was in the best interest of children,” McClurg said. “I also wouldn’t recommend continuing conversation if I didn’t think that it would get somewhere.”
Many parents argued that the proposed enrollment numbers for Del Mar are “inconsistent at best” and some Del Mar Hills parents spoke to “artificially declining enrollment” and accused the district of attempting to “sabotage” and “dismantle” their school.
“The PTA board has witnessed families turned away from enrolling at the Hills when we have outstanding teachers and open desks ready and waiting for kids,” said Del Mar parent Jennifer Hills, noting that because students are being turned away they are only projecting next year to have one fifth grade, one sixth grade and one combination fifth-sixth classroom, as well as just one kindergarten class.
Jason Romero, assistant superintendent of human resources, said the statement that Hills is turning away students is only partly accurate—“The rumor that we have closed off enrollment is false,” Romero said.
Romero said Del Mar Hills, like every school in the district, has full grade levels and grade levels with capacity. In kindergarten at Del Mar Hills there are three spaces left and there are three students who live in the Carmel Del Mar/ Hills/Heights option area that have requested to go to Hills that the district initially denied in order to save space for resident students. Romero said this situation happens all the time and if the spaces are not filled by the time school starts, they will be let in.
There is only one kindergarten class at Hills next year and only two at Heights—Romero said this dip is a trend as they are down 130 kindergarten students district-wide.
Trustee Erica Halpern echoed the Del Mar residents’ complaints about a lack of transparency and information, noting even as a board member it is challenging to get the level of analysis she would like to see.
“I know staff is working exceptionally hard... but we just need to do a better job of presenting analysis and sharing information,” Halpern said. “Why we’re in the situation we’re in now is because we haven’t laid out all the information in a clear enough way so people can see a clear solution.”
Halpern said she was frustrated that the board does not know what is happening on the west side and that there is not broad support for one solution: “We don’t have any other choice than to spend more time with the community looking at alternatives.”
Trustee Stephen Cochrane said he was fine with having the committee but it seemed “self-evident” that the plan will be to have nine schools, which the district experts have told them is not feasible financially—he didn’t want to be accused of a bait and switch if it cannot be done or simply paying lip service to the Del Mar community.
“We would obviously like to have nine schools because that would make everybody happy. But there is a real cost,” Cochrane said, citing the $1.9 million cost of the PHR school. “By not doing reconfiguration and giving the west both of their schools, recognize that it does affect other elements of the school district and other schools.”
Some parents have argued that the district has sufficient funds in Community Facilities District (CFD) Mello Roos to purchase the land and build the new Pacific Highlands Ranch school without a bond—as one parent asked: “Why are we so cash strapped to acquire and build this school?”
DMUSD has estimated the cost of the new 450-student school at $47.6 million with the additional cost of the land purchase from Pardee Homes at about $10 million.
The CFD 99-1 has about $10.4 million budgeted in the reserves for 2018-19 and the district’s bond consultant Adam Bauer said there are some limiting factors on the CFD bonds which reduces the amount of additional bonds they could issue. He said legally the district could issue up to $39 million.
“You do not have enough money to purchase the land and build the school,” Bauer said. “You do have enough money to purchase the land.”
Some parents said that the district’s available general fund money will increase due to new homes coming on to property tax rolls and that existing homes are being assessed at higher values, especially when they change hands.
According to Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Cathy Birks, the district is proposing a balanced budget for 2018-19 with expenditures and revenues of $59 million, leaving an ending fund balance of $11.5 million which represents a 19.5 percent reserve. In property tax revenues, the district is projecting a 6.55 percent increase when it closes the books on 2017-18 and they are budgeting a 4.5 percent increase for 2018-19.
“We know that assessed valuation is increasing due to new construction in PHR and Del Mar Mesa and turnover of homes in Carmel Valley and Del Mar,” Birks said, but noted that the growth will remain in the single digits.
“Once everything is on the tax roll and subject to Prop 13, the increases will level off,” Birks said. “We do not anticipate this continued level of growth.”
Annually the district receives a projection of district-wide assessed valuation from the County of San Diego Tax Assessor. The assessed valuation is not broken out by areas within the district nor does the district receive a tax roll, Birks said. The average increase over the last five years has been 6.5 percent.
Birks said the district, like all in California, is also seeing challenges in increasing pension costs. The CalSTRS (California State Teachers Retirement System) contribution will go up to 19 percent or $6 million in 2020-21 and CalPERS (Public Employees Retirement System) is estimated to grow to 23 percent or $1.9 million in 2020-21.
“I wish I could see a world in which that ninth school was fundable and we didn’t have other expenses encroaching like our special ed and our PERS and STRS and all kinds of other things that are happening,” Gibson said. “Personally, it’s really hard for me to see it but if people want a shot at thinking about it… we have not closed the door to the nine-school option. Bright people can get together and find a way that it’s feasible.”
Already, the district has budged $623,000 in 2018-19 for facilities expenditures, everything from new carpeting, wall painting and concrete repairs. Del Mar Heights School parent Sean Wheatley spoke up for his school where “the facility is in bad shape,” especially the aging portables. To replace a portable costs $400,000 or, as one parent pointed out, the cost of about four STEAM teachers.
“I don’t think we should continue to put perfume on the pig, I think we should start over there,” said Wheatley in his support fot the master plan.
Wheatley said while it was unclear for most Del Mar parents what exactly is happening, he is looking forward to working together to find a solution that works for all.
“I’d hate to see this opportunity pass us by to get money flowing through this district,” Wheatley said.