The Artesana community in Pacific Highlands Ranch has been asking that the Solana Beach School District (SBSD) reconsider their children’s school assignment and return them to Solana Ranch School, submitting a petition to the board last fall. Artesana residents feel that they are being “pushed out” of the Pacific Highlands Ranch community and sent to Solana Santa Fe Elementary School in Rancho Santa Fe rather than their neighborhood school.
“I’m fighting to send my kids to the closest school I can,” said parent Su Zhang, one of several PHR residents to address the board at its Jan. 17 meeting.
At the meeting, the board followed Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger and staff’s recommendation that the assignments remain the same.
Over the last few months the district has been working to share the enrollment projections and data driving their decision-making, including holding several small group meetings with residents.
“It is very evident across the entire Pacific Highlands Ranch community how important it is to stay within the community,” said Brentlinger. “That is very, very evident and has been communicated.”
SBSD President Julie Union remarked that these are very difficult decisions to make as board members because they impact people’s lives. The board gave direction to explore a policy change for intradistrict transfers to help these families, to explore the possibility of transportation as well as the ideas of a lottery or option areas like Del Mar Union School District has. In an effort to avoid boundary changes with growing enrollment and some overcrowded schools, DMUSD created option areas so families that live within the areas have the choice between two schools designated for their area.
SBSD Clerk Debra Shade also suggested that the district explore making an assignment to Solana Santa Fe a little more “palatable” by making it a magnet school for technology or a language immersion program.
“There shouldn’t be a hard reassignment (for Artesana) and that’s hard for me to say,” Schade said.
“It’s a heart-wrenching decision,” echoed SBSD board member Gaylin Allbaugh, who suggested watching the enrollment trends closely at Solana Ranch this fall.
Parents stated that over the years, Pardee Homes used Solana Ranch and the potential new school eight in PHR as a factor to attract buyers with young children in the new communities of Hampton Lane/Brightwater, Artesana, Casabella, Olvera, Almeria, and Sendero.
Residents said buyers in the first two phases of Artesana and all phases of Casabella were initially told that their children would first be assigned to Solana Ranch and then to the new school eight once it opened. However, either during the construction or right after completing the construction of these communities, residents were told of a change in school assignment and that the community would be “temporarily” assigned to Solana Santa Fe before the opening of school eight. Parents said the reason given at the time was that Solana Ranch had no capacity to accept more students. Xi Cheng, a Casabella resident, said she was assigned to Solana Ranch until a few days after her escrow closed. Residents brought purchase agreements to the meeting that clearly stated that Solana Ranch was their home school.
Last fall the district leaned more toward using its existing capacity rather than building school eight, which made the temporary assignments to Solana Santa Fe seem more permanent to some residents.
In October 2018, 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 students from Vista Santa Fe to Solana Santa Fe in Rancho Santa Fe. In assigning Artesana and other communities to Solana Santa Fe, the board weighed proximity to the school via Rancho Santa Fe Farms Road as well as to the closeness of the assigned developments across the upper part of PHR, “We were trying to build community,” Schade said.
After the board made the assignments, Solana Ranch parents pushed back, requesting that they reverse the decision to send Sendero students to a campus they said was already overcrowded but the board stuck with its assignments. Artesana residents also mobilized and submitted a petition in October asking for their children to attend Solana Ranch.
“By assigning incoming students from Sendero to Solana Ranch, it sent a message that the school is not full and can accept students,” resident Xuening Li said. “Why can’t Artesana students go to Solana Ranch? It’s very unfair to us. We feel very confused as to why this option has been eliminated. We pay the same Mello Roos, we should have the same opportunities.”
The current capacity at Solana Ranch is 690 students, with four modular classrooms on the school’s blacktop. Current enrollment is 572 with 38-48 open seats in various grade levels to accommodate new housing units scheduled to come on line this school year.
Per conservative projections from Decision Insite, with Sendero assigned to the school, enrollment will remain under 600 for the next five years, with the peak year being 2020 with 577 students. Using a more moderate projection of student generation rates, peak enrollment would reach 592 students in 2020, still below the capacity of 690.
District-wide, enrollment is in a decline and they are seeing smaller kindergarten classes and larger cohorts leaving in the sixth grade. Solana Ranch had an “anomaly” this year with a kindergarten class of 55 students when they were anticipating 79 students. The district has also yet to see all of the students that were anticipated from Almeria and Olvera developments.
Parent Donghua Yin said the school has the capacity to accept the small number of students from Artesana, which he believes is about 20 children. Right now, they live less than a mile away from Solana Ranch and have to travel the three miles to Rancho Santa Fe, exacerbating local traffic. Parents believed that the district should take care of students who are already living in the community before assigning children from new developments to Solana Ranch.
If they cannot attend Solana Ranch, residents asked that the district pursue the option to build school number eight—they warned the board that they will likely have the same conversations over and over again if they do not have a neighborhood school, “Nobody wants to travel 30 minutes outside of their community to elementary school,” parent Yanran Li said.
Board member Vicki King stated that it was not an easy decision to leave the school assignment the same, but she would have a hard time going against the recommendation of staff.
“I feel very emotional about this, I want to do what’s right for kids all the time,” Schade said. “Is it right to do a 900-student school? Is it right to build a new school when you’re projecting in five or 10 years we will have 200 kids there and it’s not a viable facility? I don’t know the answer right now but all of those pieces and parts are weighing heavy on my heart and I want to do right by this community so I like the idea of flexibility, I like the idea of an option, I like the idea of addressing the neighborhoods who got caught in the early decision.”
As the district does have an anomaly in terms of enrollment at Solana Ranch, Brentlinger said they will be watching closely what enrollment looks like in the fall to see if it really was a one-year anomaly or a new pattern or trend in enrollment. In the future, the board would have to determine how, as room becomes available, to assign developments back to Solana Ranch.
The board members also needs to make a decision on whether or not they will pursue school eight.
“I do believe and staff believes that the question is not so much can we afford to build school eight, the real question is do we need school eight,” Brentlinger said. “There clearly is a want and a desire for school eight but from a perspective that we have, we do not believe that we need to build school eight. We would ask that the board make this decision sooner rather than later so we can move forward with long-term plans on the rest of our modernization and other projects.”