From kindergarten to bond money — and other matters in between

The first time I wrote about the lack of a full-day kindergarten program in the Del Mar Union School District was back in 2000. The title of my story was: “Are today’s kids ready for full-day kindergarten?”

That prompted a letter to the editor – headlined “Del Mar kindergartners [are] ready for a longer day” – from five DMUSD parents, who represented many more.

Five more stories were written in 2001 and 2002, pointing out the research supporting the trend to a longer kindergarten day both locally and nationally.

A DMUSD kindergarten task force was created in 2001, and the backlash began – from some kindergarten teachers, administrators and a handful of vocal parents who said their 5-year-olds thrived under Del Mar’s legendary early dismissal time.

Parents who supported the change grew silent, intimidated by the intensity of the criticism and fearful of repercussions on their children. This was a dark moment in Del Mar’s past.

Del Mar’s kindergarten program releases students early four days a week, but one day teachers work with small groups of four or five students, providing an extended day of individualized instruction which to be fair has been widely embraced.

Even so, the partial day program was clearly antiquated and the time long past for Del Mar to get with the times.

A lengthy story in the 1/26/2005 issue of Education Week, titled, “Teachers of kindergartners adapt to full days,” included the subhead: “Expanding their time in class, youngsters are moving beyond the basics.”

The article was loaded with evidence and research-based reasons why full-day K is a positive influence on children’s development. It also included one perspective rarely discussed: “Many kindergarten teachers say they feel more connected to the rest of the staff now that they have a full-day class.”

In the 10/19/2005 issue of Education Week, the headline read: “Full-day kindergarten produces more learning gains, study says.” The subhead is significant: “Pupils make equivalent of one month’s progress with longer school days.”

These stories appeared 10 years ago.

Many children entering kindergarten today have attended one to three years of preschool, especially those living in more affluent districts. By the time they are 4, most preschoolers attend school well into the mid-afternoon.

In past years, many parents, shocked upon hearing of Del Mar’s early dismissal, found other private programs for kindergarten, choosing not to enroll their children in the DMUSD until first grade.

With state and federal guidelines imposing increasingly comprehensive core curriculum standards for kindergarten, it was becoming harder to squeeze all that material into a shortened day.

The (cursive) handwriting was on the (whiteboard) wall – the time had clearly come.

Congratulations to Del Mar for at last offering a full-day kindergarten program that meets the academic and social needs of today’s 5-year-olds.

Shelley Petersen, DMUSD’s assistant superintendent of instructional services, presented the proposal to switch to full-day K beginning this fall to DMUSD trustees at their January school board meeting, and the plan was unanimously approved.

This time there was no dissent from teachers or parents.

DMUSD teacher Gina Vargus said the change happened after many kindergarten teachers approached Petersen to say they didn’t have enough time to cover all the content standards.

“The teachers were asking for this,” said Vargus, who is co-president of the Del Mar California Teachers Association and has taught kindergarten for 21 of her 24 years in the district.

This is a shift for Vargus, who was for years opposed to a longer kindergarten day.

“I’m personally sad about losing the unique extended day program, but this gives more time for free play and undirected free time,” she said. “Play is how children learn.”

The district chose not to create a task force this time, instead trusting the consensus of the teachers who Vargus said “have the ability to make the best decision for kids.”

The district also examined research, noted that Del Mar was one of the only districts not offering full-day K, and considered that the law now requires K students to turn 5 by September 1. That means there will no longer be 4-year-olds in kindergarten.

Vargus said that at kindergarten orientation this year, no parents have objected to the shift to full-day next school year. In fact, the only objections the schools heard previously was from parents astonished the program was a short day.

Vargus said the teachers won’t be teaching more math, reading and writing, but instead will have a more relaxed schedule for academic instruction and more time for free play.

Good news for kindergartners, parents, teachers and the district. Well done, Del Mar.

New trustee

More good news from Del Mar, with the appointment of Erica Halpern to the school board to replace Doug Perkins who resigned his seat after recently being elected to the San Diego County Board of Education.

Chosen from 11 candidates, Halpern was selected unanimously after an exhaustive interview process.

After witnessing many board appointments in local districts in the past, I’ve seen trustees squirm uncomfortably as they debated each candidate’s merits in an awkward public setting.

The DMUSD’s four board members conducted a fair, professional evaluation using an unbiased system that allowed them, mercifully, to limit lengthy discussion of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

Diversity on school boards is a worthy goal. Boards function best with a balanced representation of gender, profession, background, skill sets, children’s ages, race, religion, geographic residency and socio-economic levels.

Each trustee should in theory bring something unique and valuable to the board, which aids the superintendent in his or her decisions.

Achieving all that diversity among five people is obviously not always possible, but the objective is commendable.

Halpern, as the only member of the board residing west of I-5, can offer an important perspective the others might miss, even though each board member is charged with overseeing students from all corners of the district. She brings to the board other qualities of great usefulness.

Congratulations to the DMUSD’s trustees for their professionalism and for settling upon someone who appears to be an excellent replacement for Perkins, whose wisdom and graciousness will be missed.

Vaccine controversy

Senate Bill 277 – the proposed repeal of the personal belief exemption for school immunizations – has been discussed in local school districts this past month, with mixed results.

The resolution supporting the repeal was approved March 12 unanimously by the Solana Beach School District’s board of trustees, with no speakers and no dissention.

The effort to support the repeal was sidelined, however, at the March 19 San Dieguito Union High School District’s board meeting, after eight speakers rose to oppose the bill.

Parents with kids in tow showed up to speak in favor of the personal belief exemption (PBE), holding signs against SB 277.

Parent Brian Austin said the push to repeal the PBE “smells of corporate greed” and argued about the risks of forced injections upon children.

Parent Michele Rooney said the bill removes all educational options for children because it would prohibit any child from attending public, private or even home schools without the required immunizations.

“Our children are being experimented on,” said Karen Lund, arguing that no state has the right to force medical procedures on its citizens.

Paul Paez said all parents should have the right to choose and care for their own children in the way they best see fit.

“If there’s a risk, there must be a choice,” said Brian Stenzler, president of the California Chiropractic Association. Stenzler said his organization has taken a position against the bill.

“I’d rather my children get measles, I’d rather my children get chickenpox,” said Jennifer Kidd, mother of an infant, sixth-grader and eighth-grader, all present at the meeting.

Ariel Haas, biology teacher in the San Dieguito district, also spoke against SB 277, saying the issue is not pro- or anti-vaccine.

“It’s about choice,” Haas said, asking the board to delay the vote until trustees had more time to read the bill thoroughly and study the issue.

SDUHSD superintendent Rick Schmitt noted that a vote on the resolution was only symbolic, but four trustees were inclined to table the motion to allow more time to review the bill.

Only trustee John Salazar spoke in favor of the resolution, saying students must meet certain requirements for the privilege of attending a public school. He also said the board only heard from one side.

“I’m ready to vote and vote tonight,” he said, to no avail. The motion was tabled until a future meeting.

Interestingly, on the SDUHSD March 5 agenda was an item updating board policy, with the heading, “Health Examinations.”

It read, “All employees must obtain a tuberculosis skin test or X-ray verifying freedom from active tuberculosis prior to employment and a subsequent test once every four years while employed.”

Employees are required to undergo medical procedures, on a regular basis, to ensure the safety of others … but students aren’t?

The immunization resolution has not come before Del Mar’s school board yet, although DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg said in an email that the issue has been mentioned by board members in their reports.

She said board members “could potentially respond to requests to support legislative efforts.” At the last meeting, she said they “voiced concerns about medically fragile children and very young children/babies who are at risk when in the presence of others who are unvaccinated.”

Money talk

A contract not to exceed $34,000 was approved by the Solana Beach school board March 12 for the Fairfield, Calif. firm Total School Solutions, to provide “efficiency, operational and organizational study services in the areas of business services operations,” according to the board report.

Spending $34,000 to learn how to improve cost efficiency sounded counter-intuitive, but SBSD superintendent Nancy Lynch said several people have retired recently and the current structure has been in place for many years.

“We haven’t really made changes in those departments since we were a much smaller district,” Lynch said in an email. “It is a good practice to look to see if there are different structures, processes, efficiencies or staffing levels to enhance the support we provide to our schools.

“An external consultant can often provide a fresh perspective and has knowledge of recommended best practices from districts across the state.”

Speaking of spending money, taxpayers should pay close attention as both the Solana Beach and Del Mar school districts may be preparing to place a General Obligation bond on the 2016 ballot.

If approved, this would be in addition to the $449 million GO bond approved (barely) by taxpayers in 2012 for San Dieguito, which is charging property owners a maximum of $25 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

General Obligation bonds require a 55 percent voter approval and are limited on what can be done with the money. GO bond money cannot be spent on teacher salaries, devices with short life spans (iPads, ChromeBooks, etc.), to backfill the general fund, or on expenditures unrelated to facility construction and renovation.

Look for Solana Beach and Del Mar to present detailed facilities plans in advance of submitting bond language. And please read those plans carefully to ensure they meet the stringent requirements of the law. DMUSD’s failed attempt in 2012 to pass a GO bond did not.

San Dieguito’s board authorized the issuance of its second series of bonds March 19, amounting to $117 million, not to exceed $125 million. This was approved by a vote of 4 to 1, with trustee Maureen Muir opposed. This follows the first series of bonds in the amount of $160 million, issued in April 2013.

Eric Dill, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of business services, called this the culmination of several years of work. He said the focus of the money will be primarily academic and “will help us meet enrollment demands.”

Major projects include: $41.4 million to reconstruct the Earl Warren Middle School campus, $24.5 million to build and furnish an art, English and social science building at San Dieguito Academy, $21.2 million to renovate Building B and the front entry at Torrey Pines High School, and $11.4 million to construct and furnish another classroom building at Canyon Crest Academy to accommodate increased enrollment.

Dill said the structure of the bond meets three primary conditions: it honors the commitment not to exceed a tax rate of $25 per $100,000 of property value, no capital appreciation bonds (CABs) are included, and it limits the repayment term to no more than 25 years.

Dill said two factors are driving the decision on how much to issue and when: the district’s strong assessed property value and historically low interest rates.

SDUHSD trustee John Salazar, who has kept a critical watch over the district’s bond program, said he was very pleased with the bond structure.

“The overall payback to the taxpayer is extremely reasonable,” said Salazar, complimenting the district for not using CABs.

Due to savings from the first issuance, the district has about $5 million remaining from Series A, which cost taxpayers $23.11 per $100,000 in property value. Series B is estimated to be more, but remain under the $25 cap.

Series C is projected to be issued in 2018, and Series D in 2024. Bonds will be sold in $5,000 increments.

However one may feel about the $449 million bond, it’s hard to criticize Dill and his staff who have worked hard to structure the bond well within both legal and ethical boundaries.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: