Solana Beach district will not build eighth school or expand Solana Ranch

The Solana Beach School Board voted to use its existing facilities to house students from PHR.
(Karen Billing)

The Solana Beach School District board has decided it will not build the district’s eighth school in Pacific Highlands Ranch nor will it expand Solana Ranch Elementary School to house the incoming students from the growing Pacific Highlands Ranch.

The board voted unanimously on Oct. 10 to use the district’s existing facilities at Solana Santa Fe, Carmel Creek and Solana Pacific Schools to accommodate the students generated from the 464 new homes scheduled to be built over the next two school years.

On Sept. 13, the district received notification from Pardee Homes that the developer had pulled its 1,600th dwelling unit permit in Pacific Highlands Ranch, triggering the 60-day clock on the district’s decision to purchase a 10-acre site on Golden Cypress Place to build school number eight.

The earliest that school eight could open would be 2024-25, when the enrollment wave is expected to begin decline, resulting in overbuilding of school facilities.

“Sufficient space exists and is available,” SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said. In making her recommendation to the board, she said she was not comfortable overbuilding and leaving her successor to deal with a decision to have to close one or two schools due to low enrollment in future years.

The district currently has $40 million in community facilities district (CFD) funds available to address Pacific Highlands Ranch and it is estimated that a new 368-student school would cost $55 million, including the $6.9 million pro forma purchase price of the property from Pardee. That leaves the district with a $15 million shortfall in funding.

“As a district, we have to use our financial resources properly and building school eight does not make financial sense,” said SBSD President Julie Union. “We simply don’t have money to build school eight but, most importantly, we don’t need it.”

SBSD Board member Vicki King said not only did it not make sense to build the eighth school, but she also did not want to overcrowd Solana Ranch.

“I really strongly believe that I have a fiduciary responsibility to every single person in this district to make fiscally responsible decisions, to do what’s best for kids and to do what serves the entire district,” King said. “This includes making these really bold and tough decisions that some may not agree with.”

The board’s decision followed more than two years of discussion, “thoughtful analysis of facts,” workshops, community meetings, small group meetings and personal phone calls and sit-downs with impacted residents.

“It’s clear that we can’t afford to build this new school and if we did build it by the time it was built, it would no longer be necessary,” said Pacific Highlands Ranch resident Mark Olekowsky. “Let’s get this decision past us and focus on continuously improving our kids’ educational experiences.”

Brentlinger said that every option has its supporters and opponents and, at the meeting, the board heard public comment from people who told them not to waste money on a new school as well as from those who urged them to build the school, arguing that sending students out of PHR “rips the community apart” and forces them to sit in traffic to travel to Carmel Valley and Rancho Santa Fe for school.

“We pay the highest special tax in the district and yet our kids are deprived of the right to having a neighborhood school,” said resident Donghua Yin. “Building school number eight is the only solution to solve the issue in Pacific Highlands Ranch.”

The board’s option to expand Solana Ranch would have added an additional two-story classroom building, estimated to cost $10.5 million. The current capacity at Solana Ranch is 690 students, with four modular classrooms on the school’s blacktop. The school’s enrollment is at 588 this year, with 35 seats available for incoming students without making any staffing changes.

Adrienne Suster, a Solana Ranch parent, asked that the district not jeopardize students’ education by “super-sizing” the school.

“It is wrong to max out enrollment at Solana Ranch, especially when there are other SBSD schools in the area that are under capacity, have declining enrollment and private school size classes,” Suster said. “The existing schools should work together to share the burden of increased enrollment.”

Some Pacific Highlands Ranch residents said that it was “impossible” for the board to know what the community really thinks, “Our voice has not been heard,” resident Abby Xu argued.

“No board members live in PHR,” said parent Lu Dai. “We’re not sure you really care about our community.”

A group of Pacific Highlands Ranch residents hired attorney Craig Sherman to represent their interests. At the meeting, Sherman accused the board of sitting on funds and abandoning the school site to “populate old schools that are under-capacity” and create long-term problems in what is supposed to be a walkable community.

SBSD Vice President Rich Leib objected to Sherman’s comments, “This community has been built in a very short period of time. We’re not ‘sitting on money for a long period of time.’ I think that’s an incorrect statement,” Leib said.

The superintendent and the board members said they were disappointed to hear people say that they didn’t have a voice, as they feel they have been engaging the community, studying the issue, exploring options, asking questions and getting detailed information, “We have been listening,” SBSD Clerk Debra Schade said.

“When I look at the entire district, a $15 million deficit is very hard to overcome,” she said. “I know you want a school but where is that money going to come from?”

Leib agreed and stated while he would love to build a walkable, neighborhood school, the board needs to think of the district as a whole, ensuring money is available for all students and avoid deficit spending.

Pacific Highlands Ranch resident Bruce Cameron, who has participated in the process over the last two years, said he believed the district’s outreach has been “extensive.”

“This is a group of volunteer positions. To in any way imply that they are not impartial or they’re corrupt or somehow biased about where they live is ridiculous,” Cameron said. “If we wanted someone from PHR to be on the board, we should have voted them in in the last election when they ran.”

Utilizing existing facilities will require additional classroom space at both Solana Santa Fe and Solana Pacific. The option will include two relocatable classroom buildings at Solana Pacific at a cost of $880,000 and removing the eight-classroom portables and replacing them with a permanent 10-classroom building at Solana Santa Fe, at a cost of $4 million.

Solana Santa Fe is slated for a campus modernization in 2021-22, which in addition to new classrooms includes parking lot and traffic flow improvements and kindergarten classroom and administration office upgrades. The budgeted $14.5 million remodel will be funded from Measure JJ as well as $4.5 million from the Crosby community’s facilities district funds.

At the meeting board members Union, King, Gaylin Allbaugh and Schade all shared their experiences of living through the growth of Carmel Valley at SBSD schools with their children—it meant attending a school outside of their community, attending a school with over 700 students, however, the wave did stabilize as they believe it will in Pacific Highlands Ranch.

Allbaugh said Solana Highlands, her home school, was located 3.1 miles from her house and she wouldn’t trade the experience she had for anything, “A neighborhood school is not just the one that’s closest to you,” said Allbaugh, saying she knew all PHR families would find a school they love.

“I am 100 percent confident no matter what school your child attends, they are going to get a great education and you are going to love it and you are going to love your teachers,” Schade said.

The board still has decisions to make about future assignments to Solana Ranch when capacity becomes available as well as a pilot transportation program for the 2020-21 school year. The board is considering one bus route to Solana Santa Fe and one route to Carmel Creek and Solana Pacific.

A ridership survey is currently available on the school district website. If interested, take the survey at