Winston School letter asks for retraction of city statement over lease

Del Mar City Hall
(Jon Clark)

After lease amendment negotiations ended earlier this month, The Winston School gave the city of Del Mar a June 16 deadline to retract a statement about the recent history between the two sides that had been posted to the city website.

As of June 17, the statement is still online. The city owns the land on which the school is located and serves as landlord.

In a June 10 letter to the city from an attorney representing The Winston School, the school alleges that the city violated the lease by ending discussions about amending the lease, while also ignoring a written request from Winston’s head of school to pause negotiations for 30 days.

The letter also states that Winston officials, who have been seeking a rent reduction in the amended lease, proposed a land lease of $147,000 in addition to the $1 rent rate that the city mentioned in its statement, a reduction from the current $197,245. (The city’s position is that reducing rent without commensurate community value would be an illegal gift of city funds to the school.) The school received rent credit for its contributions toward the city’s acquisition of the property, and is not scheduled to make any rent payments until 2023.

Among other disputes, the letter also accuses the city of bias against the school, and states that the city statement regarding The Winston School is “defamatory.”

“We’ll do whatever we need to do to make sure our rights are upheld,” said Dena Harris, Winston’s head of school.

Despite raising a series of legal allegations against the city and its enforcement of the lease, the school does not currently plan to pursue legal action. (During a previous council meeting, Del Mar City Attorney Leslie Devaney defended the city’s interpretation and enforcement of the lease.) Harris said “everything’s on the table” moving forward. She added that she will continue to advance the school’s narrative on the issues, but that it’s been difficult, in part, because she’s not quoted correctly in the media.

“I think how we’re depicted, particularly by [Del Mar City Councilman Dwight Worden], is not fair and not correct, period,” Harris said.

Harris also said the school has encountered “bureaucratic obstructionism” from the city. She and school attorneys have recently taken issue with how the city handled the school’s application for additional fencing around the perimeter of the campus. Del Mar’s city manager brought the fence application to the city council for approval before it could begin processing; school officials say the school has never historically needed that type of “pre-approval.”

The school is also due to submit redevelopment plans with the city later this year.

There are other notable gaps between how each side recounts the history. Worden said the city never heard any complaints from Winston about the lease, which dates back to 2008, until 2018; Harris said the school always had issues with the lease. Worden said the city was waiting for the results of an appraisal to see if it justified a rent reduction; Harris said the school never shared the results of the appraisal with the city, but that the lease amendments weren’t supposed to be contingent upon the appraisal.

A 10-page memo included by Worden and Del Mar City Councilwoman Sherryl Parks, who both serve as council liaisons to The Winston School, said the city “tried, at every step, to find ways to accommodate Winston.”

“It simply insisted on a substantial rent reduction without any factual basis in support,” said the memo, which was part of the city statement that Winston wants retracted. “Winston declined to share the appraisal it was sure would back up its position, and Winston presented no other evidence as to why its rent was unreasonable.”

Worden said it would take a city council action to retract the city statement, but no public discussion among council members about a potential retraction has taken place.

“I’m still 100% convinced that the statement is accurate,” he said.