Parents voice support for Heights rebuild

A rendering of the Del Mar Heights multi-use room.

The Del Mar Union School District heard over two hours of public comment on April 14 as the board held its initial review of the environmental document for the Del Mar Heights School rebuild. There were 150 people on the Zoom call and the majority of speakers voiced support for the rebuild to continue as planned. Community members continued to speak out against the threat of litigation over alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act after the district’s Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) found that with mitigation, the rebuild has no significant impacts on the environment.

Parents fear that what happened in Cardiff could happen here, where a lawsuit could disrupt the school rebuild.

“Taxpayers who have already paid in via Measure MM are losing patience as we move toward the June construction start date,” said Del Mar Heights parent Frank Stonebanks. “If we don’t start by this summer, and there is a lawsuit, there could potentially be a two-year delay from a school operating perspective, which will result in other schools being effected, throw chaos into the entire school system, effecting every school in the district.”

“The board has bent over backward to appease all in this project,” echoed Del Mar resident Mike Tanghe. “At some time, you just have to decide enough is enough and move on.”

DMUSD Director of Capital Programs Chris Delehnanty said the district prepared an MND for the Heights rebuild given that they are not adding capacity and “not making large changes” as the site currently is a school with a larger capacity than what they are proposing. He said the school will go down one classroom to 21 general education classrooms, remain in the same footprint and will not increase the number of students and staff on campus—the school’s enrollment is at 450 students and the capacity that they are building for is about 500 students.

He said MND’s are commonly used for school rebuilds and locally were used for the rebuilds of Earl Warren Middle School, Skyline School and Solana Vista School, which is also set to begin its rebuild this summer.

During the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) public comment period, the district received 27 comments on the document, including comments by the Sierra Club’s North County Coastal Group, Play Outside Del Mar and the law firm Procopio on behalf of the group Save the Field. Procopio is the firm that was involved in the lawsuit against Cardiff School District over an alleged violation of CEQA and taxpayer waste of bond funds which halted construction of its new school for three months.

Save the Field has argued that the MND is inadequate and does not address potentially significant issues such as wildfire risks, aesthetics, greenhouse gas emissions, the project’s impacts on the adjacent Torrey Pines State Reserve Extension and the reduction of field space. Save the Field’s comments state that the district must prepare and circulate a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before approving the rebuild or at a minimum, the MND should be revised and recirculated.

The board anticipates taking action on the MND in early May.

“Our commitment is to a thorough response to all comments,” said Delehanty. “As we review the comments and find that further study is necessary to understand or evaluate potential impacts, we are going to go through that process to ensure that the public is heard.”

Ethan Franke, a resident on Boquita Drive, said he found Save the Field’s demand for further CEQA review to be in “poor taste” and “unethical,” particularly in light of the law firm’s involvement.

“The pattern and intent in Procopio’s involvement is obvious to me,” Franke said. “This firm is being used to promote the agenda of a select few and through legal tap-dancing have given themselves possible immunity from liability under the umbrella of a newly created non-profit organization.”

Heights parent Mike Milligan said he reached out to Cardiff School parents who told him that the last few months dealing with the lawsuit were not only emotionally draining but they lost construction time and not one thing in the design was changed, “all that happened was that kids lost $500,000 to lawyers.”

Mark Maggenti, who has lived a block away from the Heights school for 15 years, said he read the CEQA document and he agreed that there are no significant negative long-term environmental impacts. “This should not be a surprise, the major characteristics of the school have not changed,” he said, noting that the school has been there for 50 years, the boundaries are not changing and the school is still all one-story buildings.

“What has changed is positive for the environment,” Maggenti said, listing that traffic and parking is moved off of public streets, pedestrian access is improved and the distance between houses and the school is increased, especially with the addition of the neighborhood park on Boquita.

Trustee Scott Wooden said he listened to all the public comments and has read all the emails and CEQA comments.

“I’ve not heard anything in those comments that would preclude a Mitigated Negative Declaration although I will reserve my decision until hearing the responses at the time we will vote,” Wooden said. “I find it interesting through all the discussion of compromises over the past months, not one comment was about safety, in particular wildfire safety. In my opinion this may just be a redirect to continue a delay.”

“I do not see changes to the design if an EIR is approved or if a lawsuit is initiated, instead I see the students being off-site next year while certain aspects of an EIR is done plus an additional year while the school is built,” Wooden continued. “Any legal proceedings will just line the pockets of lawyers at the expense of our students, it will negatively impact the funds that could be used to modernize Carmel Del Mar and Del Mar Hills and the future needs of all other schools.”

Save the Field’s motives questioned
No one from Save the Field spoke during public comment at the meeting and Delehanty said he has only been in communication with the group via their Procopio attorney. Speakers alleged that Save the Field is a small minority with “questionable motives.”

“We’re in a strange spot in the world right now where we’re all hunkering down in our houses. It gave me a little time to think that it’s very easy for a couple of motivated people who are litigation-inclined to block a plan which benefits an entire community,” said Pat Casey, a Mira Montana resident. “I don’t want it to happen here.”

According to Save the Field, the people listed on the non-profit paperwork filed with the secretary of state in January—Kelley Huggett, Shana Khoury and Nermin Nergis—were required to have designated officer roles by the state but they do not represent the group leadership.

According to a statement from the group, they are a corporation comprised of Del Mar voters organized to act as a watchdog to ensure that the district complies with environmental laws, does not eliminate 50% of the playfields and hardtop and that it complies with the constitution by using taxpayer money accountably and carrying out only those improvements the voters approved in Measure MM.

Rather than use a group spokesperson, the group prepared a statement in response to the comments made during the April 14 board meeting.

In the statement, Save the Field said they hired Procopio to prepare a response to a CEQA document that they feel is inadequate and said that the group is acting in the interest of the public, not for the personal financial interests of any of its members.

“In an age of government abuse and waste, it takes an informed and committed citizenry to hold our government agencies accountable. That is what Save the Field intends to do – with civility and by relying on facts and the law – not attacks, rhetoric and hyperbole,” the statement said. “Save the Field supports a rebuild of Del Mar Heights and the children the district serves. But it cannot stand idly by while the district touts a school at all costs. A rebuild should be done lawfully - in the interests of the public and environment and in compliance with the California Constitution and state environmental law.”

“Sadly, the district has already shown that without oversight it will bend the law to serve its self-interests and will attack any informed member of the public who dares stand in its way.”

In her comments, Heights parent Tricia Dixon said that if a full EIR is forced by a lawsuit, they will likely come back to the exact same plan, however, time and money will have been wasted.

“I’m truly baffled by the fact that no one is willing to stand up and say they personally hired Procopio or they personally donated funds,” said Heights parent Tricia Dixon, accusing the group of hiding behind anonymous spokespersons and the non-profit. “Not a single person has said they are directly involved. Why? If you truly feel that you are doing what is right and just, you would not be in hiding but would stand behind your actions.”

At the meeting, speakers also questioned the motives of John Gartman of Play Outside Del Mar and his new comments focused on wildfire risk.

Gartman said he learned about the issues of fire safety when studying Rolf Silbert’s alternative design. “Having learned about those issues, I felt it was my job as a citizen to raise them,” Gartman said. “The wildfire risk is real at this site.”

Gartman’s comments on the MND have been that the site design “aggressively” changes it for the worst with an inadequate fire road and a reduced fire space buffer as the buildings have all moved closer to the reserve. He has argued that an evacuation time study should be done for the safety of the kids.

“Despite the legal requirements to study all of these things, the MND doesn’t address a single one of them and it makes serious misstatement of fact as to why it doesn’t,” Gartman said. “The facts are what the facts are. I did come about this late in the game but I hope the district will take the wildfire risk seriously.”

Gartman has stated that he did not hire Procopio, he has no connection with Save the Field and is not funding their efforts.

He said that he is “not an island” and represents other people in the community—in speaking out he said he is trying to set an example for his son of “standing up for what he believes in.”

Gartman has also asserted that he has not threatened nor filed a lawsuit against the district.

“Play Outside Del Mar is not going to sue the school district for environmental violations,” Gartman said. “We’re not going to stop their rebuild.”

There were also some comments about the relationship between the Save the Field organization and the petition that circulated six months ago. Del Mar resident Ruthlyn Fox said she initially signed the petition but she had no idea that signing would potentially delay the rebuild and litigation is something she is not in support of. She said she felt tricked by the Save the Field petition and asked for her name to be removed.

Nicole Pentheroudakis, who started the Save the Del Mar Heights Field petition, said the petition was in no way affiliated with the Save the Field entity that hired Procopio. Pentheroudakis said she has not donated any money to Save the Field and that the petition’s sole purpose was to inform the community of the changes being made at the Heights—she has since taken the petition offline.

“Contrary to some emails and posts that have been circulated recently, I don’t believe it’s selfish and greedy to advocate for our children’s need to have access to safe, open recreational play space. Kids need to play,” Pentheroudakis said. “It’s not selfish and greedy to want the school district to adequately assess the safety aspects of the rebuild. It’s not selfish and greedy to hold the school board accountable.”

‘Hopes and dreams’ for new Heights
DMUSD Trustee Doug Rafner said he has faith in the designers, consultants and the Division of State Architects to ensure the safety aspects of the rebuild plan are not only adequate but above adequate and keep kids safe. The mediator in him requested that the district do an informal fire evacuation study if it would alleviate concerns and convince some people to stand off from moving forward on litigation.

DMUSD Clerk Gee Wah Mok said he would be incredibly disappointed if district funds would be taken away from the students to fight a lawsuit.

“I’m very confident in the work the district has done,” Mok said. “I know no one here wants to build something that is unsafe.”

DMUSD President Erica Halpern has said many times that she believes that the design has only gotten better from all of the input they have received throughout the process and there have been several compromises made to increase the size of the field. Teachers and parents remarked that the design meets the goals they set out to achieve with safety and security first, improvements for parking and Boquita back-ups, creating indoor and outdoor learning spaces and replacing aging portables plagued by mold and rodent infestations.

David Skinner, president of the Del Mar California Teachers Association, said DMUSD teachers overwhelmingly support the current plan.

“It is necessary for learning and safety of students and teachers,” Skinner said. “Wasteful delays would not only harm the students and teachers of Del Mar Heights, but also negatively affect the students and teachers of every school in our district.”

Former Principal Wendy Wardlow also raised her voice in support of the design, “as a person who unabashedly loves this school community.” She said the new design brings “robust and varied” play space for children and she loves the potential of the proposed community park on Boquita which will be open during school hours.

Teresa Solis, a Heights teacher for 20 years, said Proposition MM was passed by the voters with “the hopes and dreams for a beautiful, modern and inspirational” rebuild of an almost 60-year old facility in deteriorating conditions.

“Members from the community have been heard. Compromises have been made,” Solis said. “The cost of a delay would be enormous, and actually have the possibility of shattering the dream of the beautiful new school that is currently within reach of the community and thousands of future students.”

In its statement, Save the Field contends that “had the district disclosed its intent to dispose of rare and treasured Del Mar outdoor play space, it’s safe to say that the measure would not have received the support it did.”

Ian Phillip, the Heights PE teacher since 2004, said he knows every inch of that grass and he believes the new field will have more than enough room for kids. He said he supports the use of the property outside of school hours— it is where he taught his own child to ride a bike—but that public need comes secondary to the needs of the students. He believes both can co-exist.

“The field does not need saving,” Phillip said. “What it needs is to be respected as a piece of private school property.”