The Solana Beach School District is weighing its options on how to deal with the increased growth in Pacific Highlands Ranch, riding out the enrollment wave by maximizing its existing capacity across the district or potentially building an eighth school.
At a Sept. 26 workshop, the board grappled with where to assign students from the 515 units that are expected to be built in Pacific Highlands Ranch from 2019 to 2023, the bulk of students arriving in 2019 and 2020.
The board is expected to make a decision on attendance areas for the swell of PHR students at its Oct. 11 board meeting—in November, the board is expected to make a decision on whether or not to build the district’s eighth school in Pacific Highlands Ranch in order to handle the wave of new students.
SBSD President Debra Schade said that the board is tasked right now with managing new growth, declining enrollment and limited dollars to make a decision that is best for students, families and the community.
“We have to be delicate, responsible, careful and as transparent as possible,” Schade said. “We are faced with a very difficult decision right now.”
“We want there to be absolute transparency for people on which one of our beautiful Solana Beach School District schools their students will be attending when they buy their homes,” echoed SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger.
Currently students from the 944 units occupied or now selling in Pacific Highlands Ranch are assigned to Solana Ranch Elementary School in Pacific Highlands Ranch (Carmel Valley) and Solana Santa Fe Elementary School in Rancho Santa Fe.
In one of the board’s options, all students from the 515 homes east of Pacific Highlands Ranch Parkway will be assigned to Carmel Creek (K-3) and Solana Pacific (4-6) in Carmel Valley or Solana Santa Fe (K-6).
The board gave direction back in March for an option that fills Carmel Creek first rather than Solana Highlands, due to the school’s distance from Pacific Highlands Ranch. Board members did not believe it was reasonable to carve out an attendance area in PHR for Solana Highlands, asking homeowners to exit the community and drive out to the farthest school across town, about 3.7 miles down Del Mar Heights Road.
“Carmel Valley Road and Del Mar Heights Road is truly a nightmare,” SBSD Vice President Julie Union said, stressing how important livability is in the board’s decision.
As noted by resident Bruce Cameron, who served on the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board’s PHR traffic committee, PHR residents in the Del Mar Union School District face 30-minute commutes to go the mile-and-a-half to Sycamore Ridge School. (The Del Mar district’s general obligation bond Measure MM on the November ballot includes funding for a new school in Pacific Highlands Ranch).
With the attendance area proposed, the board considers Carmel Creek to be a better option for residents as they can get off Del Mar Heights Road sooner on Carmel Canyon or Carmel Country Road to access Carmel Creek and Solana Pacific. They would, however, still have to drive past the neighborhood school Solana Ranch to get to their school of attendance.
The PHR homes assigned to Solana Santa Fe have access to Rancho Santa Fe Farms Road to get to Rancho Santa Fe.
Students from the Santa Barbara development, off Del Mar Heights Road across from Cathedral Catholic, have been attending Solana Ranch. In the board’s option, siblings of current students would be grandfathered in to Solana Ranch but new students will be assigned to Carmel Creek and Solana Pacific.
The board’s attendance area decision also includes the new 608 units from One Paseo, which is expected to be occupied in 2018-20. Students from One Paseo are proposed to be assigned to Solana Highlands and Solana Pacific.
Facilities and financing
As part of its workshop, the board members considered the challenges of all of their schools’ capacity and how their space is being utilized. Currently the Solana Highlands campus is 73 percent utilized with 296 students enrolled, Carmel Creek is at 76 percent with 344 students, and Solana Pacific is at 94 percent capacity with 518 students.
Solana Ranch currently has 572 students enrolled and the district recently added two modular classrooms to the campus to help handle the increased enrollment.
With no new development, Solana Santa Fe’s enrollment is expected to decline from 310 students to 260 over the next five years, according to Caroline Brown, executive director of capital programs and technology. A chunk of students from PHR would help “save” Solana Santa Fe, which is slated for a modernization beginning in 2021.
Brown said the modernization and scale for the new Solana Santa Fe has yet to be determined as the area has seen some very big changes.
“It used to be sleepy and quiet there but now there’s lots of traffic,” Brown said of the fact that San Dieguito Road is now used as a cut-through for many commuters and El Apajo Road is very congested.
“Pick-up and drop-off at Solana Santa Fe is extremely challenging,” said board member Vicki King, something to keep in mind if they bring more students to the school. “There are a lot of concerns about safety at that campus right now.”
If the district decides to build school #8, it could opt to send all PHR students to the two PHR campuses. This option would help even out the population at Solana Ranch although Solana Santa Fe and Carmel Creek’s enrollment would continue to decline, Brown said. Each housing option has fiscal implications.
In addition to the possibility of building school #8, in order to house students the board must consider options such as adding an additional classroom wing to Solana Ranch and adding portables to Solana Santa Fe and Solana Pacific campuses.
According to Lisa Davis, assistant superintendent of business services, with community facilities district (Mello Roos) funds and bond proceeds, the district has about $40 million available.The option to “right size” Solana Ranch by adding eight classrooms would be about $11 million, two additional portables at Solana Pacific would cost about $880,000, and the costs to replace eight aging portables at Solana Santa Fe with 10 new portables would be a lease of about $4 million.
The projected cost of a small school #8 (for about 350 students) is about $48.5 million, leaving the district with a $15 million shortfall at this point to build that school, Schade noted. The cost estimate may be higher as the district has to acquire the 10-acre property on Golden Cypress Place from Pardee Homes—the updated land appraisal is expected by the end of October.
Union and King said they would like to see the board move forward as soon as possible on some of these big decisions, “I don’t want to see us go too long given the accelerated growth we’re seeing,” King said.
Clerk Holly Lewry agreed, saying it would be helpful for district families to know that there is a master plan in place.
Before the board makes its final decision on attendance areas on Oct. 11, it gave Superintendent Brentlinger direction to research the drivability of streets on proposed routes to school and traffic and safety implications, including possible busing options and pedestrian safety at Solana Santa Fe.