Solana Beach delays decision on PHR solution following community input

The Solana Beach School District encountered opposition after the board expressed that it was considering not pursuing the option of building a new school to handle the influx of students coming from new homes being built in Pacific Highlands Ranch.

Parents were also opposed to the alternative idea of expanding Solana Ranch Elementary School, the only school in Pacific Highlands Ranch which many said is already too overcrowded with students.

In response to the input, the district hosted a series of community meetings and pushed back the board’s Nov. 8 decision date to continue having the discussion on how they are going to accommodate all of those students in PHR. Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said they are committed to being “open, honest and transparent” and plan to form a district-wide facilities task force to act as an advisory body regarding the short and long-term needs.

Brentlinger said over the last several weeks they have gathered feedback and fielded emails, including constructive and critical responses from the community. Brentlinger said they heard from parents to keep school number 8 as an option, to not expand Solana Ranch, to immediately repeal the board’s decision to send the new Sendera community to Solana Ranch, and to consider transportation options for those traveling out of PHR to attend school

“We all want to maintain the high quality schools that families moved to the Solana Beach School District to attend. Ultimately we want to make the best decisions for our students,” Brentlinger said at a Nov. 1 session at Solana Ranch that featured all of the district’s consultants sharing information on finances, student demographics and school construction costs.

“No decisions have been made. The decision will be explored through community engagement,” Brentlinger said. “This community engagement is essential in order that staff and the board have all the information necessary to make an informed decision.”

The district faces tough decisions ahead with 515 new homes on the way between 2019 and 2023.The district had been anticipating the bulk of build-out to occur between 2027 and 2030 whereas the timeline now has 125 new homes coming into the district during the 2018-19 school year, 290 in 2019-20 and 174 in 2020-21. The board has looked to maximize current resources to accommodate enrollment by distributing students to Solana Pacific, Carmel Creek and Solana Santa Fe as well as some to Solana Ranch.

The district also has the option to build an eighth school on 10-acres on Golden Cypress Place, which the board had expressed its intention to eliminate as an option based on a lack of funding and demographic projections that the school might not be needed after the district rides the wave of the enrollment growth.

Per the 1998 agreement with Pardee Homes, the district must decide whether to purchase the property from Pardee by the time they reach 1,600 dwelling units sold, which is expected to happen by the third quarter of 2019.

The Nov. 8 board meeting was a packed house in the multi-purpose room (MPR) at Solana Ranch, the back wall opened up with parents spilling out onto the blacktop, close to where four modular classroom buildings have been added to the campus to help with the enrollment that has grown steadily since the school opened in 2014.

Many parents said it was wrong to “load” Solana Ranch when other schools in the district have capacity. But still others argued that every student deserves to attend a neighborhood school and be able to walk to school, “don’t break our community’s kids up into other communities,” pleaded one parent.

A group of concerned residents started their own grassroots efforts, circulating a petition of 877 signatures urging the district not to eliminate the option to build the eighth school.

“What has been driving them is a shared realization that if they just let the school district eliminate school #8 without a fight, they would forever feel sorry for PHR kids including their own and those of future PHR families,” the petitioners stated. “For this reason alone, they and their kids deserve the neighborhood school that has been promised to them from the beginning.”

On Oct. 11, the board assigned new students from the community of Sendero to Solana Ranch; the communities of Terrazza, Vista Del Mar and Carmel to Carmel Creek and Solana Pacific; and Vista Santa Fe to Solana Santa Fe in Rancho Santa Fe.

Solana Ranch currently has 573 students enrolled. According to the district, as class sizes are loaded at an average of 23:1, there is the flexibility to enable capacity for 690 students, which would accommodate the highest projected enrollment from the new homes.The projected capacity of 690 students was “mindboggling” to Adrienne Suster, a parent of three children at the school.

Suster said Solana Ranch’s infrastructure already struggles to accommodate the current level of enrollment —she said there are four lunch periods spanning from 11:40 a.m. to 1:20 p.m. because lunch service, the dining area and playground areas are too crowded. Suster and other parents said school resources are already “maxed out” from the library and janitorial staff to the safety of children during drop-off and pick-up.

“I love my school but it already feels like we have enough kids,” said fourth grade student Oliver Fox. “I get to eat lunch at noon but my little sister in second grade has to eat at 1 o’ clock. When we have assemblies in our MPR it’s really crowded and we have to split into two groups. Please don’t overcrowd our school when there’s space at other schools like Carmel Creek.”

With community facilities district (Mello Roos) funds and bond proceeds, the district has about $40 million available to address the Pacific Highlands Ranch community.

The district’s pro-forma site acquisition cost with Pardee Homes is $6.8 million and the projected cost to build a small school is about $48.5 million, leaving the district with a $15 million shortfall at this point. A small school of about 350 students would cost an additional $1.3 million a year to run, not including teacher and staff costs.

Other options include expanding Solana Ranch and utilizing space at existing schools, both of those options also come with price tags. To “right-size” Solana Ranch would cost an estimated $10 million; to accommodate growth at other sites would require improvements, such as $4.4 million to lease portables for Solana Santa Fe School and two new modular classroom buildings at Solana Pacific at a cost of $880,589.

At the meetings, parents questioned the district’s financial model, saying they have “grossly overestimated” the cost of a new school and that it is feasible to build the eighth school with the available funding. Parents particularly questioned the district’s cost inflation estimations and also stated the district has not explored the option of a “not so fancy” school.

According to the district’s consultants Erickson Hall, construction cost escalation rates are often very different from inflation rates. According to the consultants, construction costs have increased an average of 3.1 percent annually. Since 2011 through 2016, costs increased an average of 4 percent with 2016 reaching 8 percent alone. The rapid expansion of costs is attributed to the cost of materials, regulation and capacity.

Solana Ranch parent Satish Krishnan told the board that the petition does not represent the majority opinion.

“I’m strongly opposed to school #8. I believe that the board here is highly capable of making the right decision,” Krishnan said, advising the board that it was not fiscally responsible to spend money that they do not have.

At previous board meetings where the topic of PHR students was discussed, resident Bruce Cameron was often the only member of the public in attendance

.“In the last three weeks, a lot of people have joined the conversation and I think it’s wonderful to get different viewpoints,” Cameron said.

He noted that in the campaign for one point of view, there has been a lot of “online mud-slinging” and an attempt to discredit the data, the district and the board. He said over the last two years of attending meetings, he has seldom seen a more competent and committed board and it was “transparently false” that they would fake data or misrepresent facts. He said he believed that the board has the best interest of kids at heart which was affirmed by the recent election results which saw two incumbents re-elected.

“The question is with 650 to 750 open seats across the district, does it make sense to get another 335 seats at the most southern part of our district and costing tens of millions of dollars that we don’t have, notwithstanding egress and ingress issues facing this location?” Cameron asked.

He said a new school needs to be driven not just by student needs in 2019 but the needs of 2022, 2032 and 2042—the $1.3 million-plus cost to operate a small school could become a “massive drain.”

“Whether we like it or not, 515 homes are coming on line in the next few years we have to find a place for the students,” Cameron said. “The board has spent 18 months with this data. If a new school is not needed, we should not build it.”

While the district has said that the timeline for the new homes has been accelerated, Jimmy Ayala, division president of Pardee Homes San Diego, said that is “misleading and false.”

“Growth and development of PHR has been deliberate and transparent to members of the community and stakeholders,” Ayala stated in a letter sent to PHR residents on Oct. 31. “As the developer and builder of PHR, we carefully meter out home building to meet the demands of the consumer.”

The letter stated that Pardee works with the city and all stakeholders on “appropriate, planned and permitted growth and given the time it takes to obtain approvals and build homes, “fast-tracking” homes is not an option. Pardee Homes has stated it is in favor of options that do not force local families to send children outside the community and endure longer commutes—their belief has been that the best way to accommodate growth is through the purchase of the school site and the construction of a new school, however, they recognize the district’s budgetary constraints.

“We believe it is important for the Solana Beach School District to identify a solution that would continue to enhance the community as it was originally planned,” Ayala wrote. “We are committed to working with the district to facilitate a solution for the schools in PHR that benefits all stakeholders.”