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Education Matters: San Dieguito and its new district office: Who knew?

Taxpayers can be excused for not knowing that the San Dieguito Union High School District is seriously considering constructing a new district office.

Since it’s never been on the Discussion section of any board meeting agendas, who would know?

It wasn’t until the announcement came through of a July 29 special board workshop on the “District Educational Center Feasibility Study” that I began to pay more attention.

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To translate, the District Educational Center means a new district office, which is currently located at 710 Encinitas Blvd. in Encinitas.

I asked Supt. Robert Haley if this item had ever been on the public agenda before. He said yes, and later sent me a list of dates when the idea of a new district office had been discussed.

But we appear to have differing definitions of what’s disclosed on the public agenda.

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The first on his list was Jan. 24, 2019, when a special board workshop was called, for a “Facilities/Prop. AA Update.”

A handout was given (but not included on the public agenda notice) that listed completed projects, current projects, financing and demographics, pertaining to the progress of Proposition AA bond funding.

A new district office was on the financing list for an estimated cost of just over $9 million, although no Prop. AA funds can be used for this purpose since construction of a new district office was not on the original voter-approved list of projects when Prop. AA passed in 2012.

A new district office was, however, included on the Projects list – “Potential new district office, 710 Encinitas Blvd., sell or lease, feasibility study” – for a cost of $35,000.

Because the title of the board workshop indicated a review of Prop. AA projects and funding, the idea of a new district office was buried. Who would know?

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On the June 6 board agenda, the “District Educational Center” was listed under Item #9e, to approve an agreement with Ruhnau-Clarke Architects to “conduct a feasibility study of existing district office space and proposed operations center.”

This particular item, #9e, was number 20 on a list of 22 items up for approval. The entire list was under the Consent Agenda, which lists items in bulk to be approved as one by the board, with no discussion by board members unless requested.

The amount for approval of the study, to come from the district’s Capital Facilities Fund 25-19, was $97,550 plus reimbursable expenses not to exceed $5,000. The start date was listed as 6/17/19 and would continue through to completion.

On that June 6 agenda, board president Beth Hergesheimer and Haley in each of their reports mentioned a tour they took to view a new Palm Springs district office. These disclosures were not items up for discussion.

At the June 20 public board meeting, board members Kristin Gibson and Hergesheimer mentioned in their board reports tours of other school district offices, and Haley in his general update said special board meetings would be scheduled to further discuss the feasibility of a new district office – again, not items up for discussion.

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Another day when Haley’s office said the item appeared on a board agenda was the July 24 special board meeting. This was called to discuss and approve resolutions establishing and levying special taxes on Community Facilities Districts, a rather pro forma and boring necessity.

Although the list from Haley’s office states that Item #3 on that July 24 agenda included a meeting with architects to review the District Educational Center Feasibility Study, I could find no such reference.

Finally, the Sept. 19 agenda does include the District Educational Center Feasibility Study, but not as a Discussion item – rather, as an update under the superintendent’s report, which is given at the end of the board meeting.

It is in the same obscure place on this week’s Oct. 10 agenda.

Who would know?

Not a nice location

At the July 29 feasibility workshop, the board and staff members heard from Steve Prince of Ruhnau-Clarke Architects, to be “updated on the progress of the [feasibility] study and hold a discussion on programming needs for a new facility and other aspects of the project,” according to the agenda.

Present at this workshop from the district were four board members, Haley, his executive assistant, the district’s four associate superintendents and Planning Services Executive Director John Addleman.

The meeting began at 2 p.m. and lasted for hours – obviously keeping administrators from attending to their primary duties.

Haley mentioned leveraging the existing building as a way to pay for a new office. Addleman said the existing building would likely be kept as an asset, and they are working on options.

The district can borrow from itself, from CFDs, and using the current district office as collateral, Haley said.

A ballpark number of $12 million to construct a new district was mentioned. But with so many details not yet established, the number was very preliminary.

The existing office, Haley said, “is no longer a nice location like it once was.” He said it’s not very welcoming and he would like a more friendly, open environment.

In addition, he said that “moving the district office to a central location would unite the north and the south.”

Construction was discussed of a new district office at the Earl Warren Middle School site in Solana Beach, which is fully owned by the district and is considered more centrally located.

Other options for a site are being considered, with no decision yet.

Haley said field trips to other facilities included the new $30 million facility in Palm Springs, Poway’s “reconditioned” building and Coronado’s district office.

Haley envisions an “Educational Center” that can house students for instruction, as well as a welcome center for parents, students, teachers and visitors. Any building that houses students must be approved, however, by the Division of the State Architect.

Other features of this vision include a space for professional development, private rooms for confidential interviews and personnel reviews, a courtroom type area for hearings, a nicer boardroom, kitchen facilities, patios, a “Wellness Center” for staff where they can relax and take a break, sustainability, a community center, and an open lobby entrance area where student achievement and the history of the school district can be displayed.

Each of the four district department heads created a lengthy list of features they’d like to see in a new office building to meet their particular needs, and shared that information in meetings with the architect.

The current office building, with 60,000 square feet, was built as a medical building, which isn’t ideal for a district office, Haley said. Addleman noted there isn’t enough parking for staff at the current location.

“Buildings have a life span,” said Gibson.

“Instruction improves when you have district leadership on-site as much as possible,” she said, noting that drive times for staff would lessen with a more central location.

At no cost?

Trustee Mo Muir wanted to know why this project was not included on the Prop. AA list when the bond was presented before voters in 2012.

“Why was this not a priority then?” she asked.

To Prince’s comment that the district’s identity is lost in the existing facility, Muir said, “A building doesn’t define who we are.”

She said not that many people come to the district office.

But Hergesheimer appeared to support the project, saying, “If we can do this at no cost, why not?”

Reasons “why not” are numerous.

First, it hasn’t been “at no cost” so far, when a significant amount of time spent on this issue by top administrators whose salaries are taxpayer-funded is factored in.

The time upper management has already dedicated to this issue (meetings, field trips and compiling departmental facility needs) cannot be recovered. Time is money, and more time and staff effort will be required to make this dream a reality.

Furthermore, the money spent for the architectural firm to conduct the “District Educational Center Feasibility Study” could instead buy … hmmm … how many test tubes, microscopes and musical instruments for students?

Thinking about Earl Warren being a better, more centralized location for a district office makes me sad for poor La Costa Canyon High School, now already far away from the existing office.

And a Wellness Center for district office staff, complete with exercise equipment and showers? Really? How about a gym membership instead.

The existing building may not be ideal, no argument there. But with some imagination and determination, walls can be moved, renovations can be done, additions can be made, and modernization can be achieved – for far less time, money and effort than what’s been spent so far and what will be spent in the future.

Why this matters, given that it’s not been listed as a Discussion item on any agenda to date, is the suspicion that it’s purposely being done under the radar without public knowledge.

“I listed the District Educational Center under my report to update the board on the progress of the feasibility study,” said Haley in an email. He said the board can ask questions about the report during those updates.

But the public?

“Public comments are for items up for board consideration,” Haley said – and this, listed under Supt. reports, is not one of those items.

“It gets somewhat confusing in regards to reports, which are not items for action at that time by the board,” he said. “A member of the public could certainly comment, during public comment for non-agenda items.”

In other words, no, the public cannot comment on something that’s not listed under a real Item number. Reports on a new district office have always been a “non-agenda” item. The public could only make remarks about this in general comments, without referring to a particular item number.

Haley is keeping this as a “non-agenda item” for reasons unknown. But speculation does not offer reassurance that the district is operating with full transparency.

The lack of transparency is disturbing. If this were more open, then no one would ask, “Who would know?”

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.


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