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Education Matters: New district office rises again; SOUL’s crushing demise

It’s baaaaack.

Just when we thought the San Dieguito Union High School District had indefinitely tabled the idea to build a multi-million-dollar district office at Earl Warren Middle School, it seems the district and Supt. Robert Haley just won’t let it go.

This proposed project, with early discussions that included a gym and what one might label a “relaxing room” for staff, has again surfaced with nary a single agenda item referring to this proposal until at last it appeared on the most recent school board meeting agenda.

marsha_sutton.jpg
Marsha Sutton
(Courtesy)
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Bypassing student needs like science equipment, musical instruments, a pool, lowering class sizes, and other actions that would directly and positively impact students, the district seems hell-bent on its Taj Mahal headquarters.

Word is that the city of Solana Beach isn’t too keen on this idea. Nor are folks in desperate need of field space in Solana Beach.

Speaker after speaker at SDUHSD’s Feb. 27 board meeting expressed disappointment with the school district over this issue, citing the lack of open space in the community, traffic impacts, the absence of information and collaboration in advance with constituents, and funding priorities.

Haley had requested board approval of $352,412 to Ruhnau Clarke Architects to design a new district office at Earl Warren. But the board postponed a decision on this.

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However, the board unanimously approved nearly $260,000 to begin the renovation and modernization of the district’s current and fully owned – and quite adequate – district office centrally located at 710 Encinitas Blvd. in Encinitas.

Ruhnau Clarke Architects, with offices in Riverside and Carlsbad, is the beneficiary of this sizeable chunk of money, all of which is coming from the district’s capital facilities fund – an allocation that must aggravate people on San Dieguito’s pool committee who have worked for years to secure funding and permission from the district to build a much-needed pool.

Haley’s report to the board said the current district office did not provide enough collaborative spaces for staff or for professional development, among other rationales.

But with some creative thinking, options exist to open the current facility, build up, dig down, or expand existing space in other productive ways. Yet many question if any of this is really necessary at all.

The current district office is fully paid for, with good access on a major street and near the freeway, said a prominent Solana Beach resident who asked to remain anonymous.

“Spend their monies on the school facilities, not fancy district offices that cost millions of dollars,” she wrote in an email. “Most elementary districts sure don’t have fancy separate offices with all these bells and whistles.”

Given that Haley seems determined to see this imprudent project through to completion, the question parents and the community should be asking is why the priorities are not on the students instead.

SOUL charter school news

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The School of Universal Learning, the only charter school located in the San Dieguito district, was arguably the first school in the district to focus on social and emotional learning. SEL is now a primary and greatly needed emphasis on schools everywhere.

Sadly, SOUL was blind-sided last year by its authorizer, the San Diego County Office of Education, when SDCOE only gave the school a two-year conditional approval. And that minimal approval was burdened with so many laborious conditions that clearly the objective from the start was to shut the school down – which SDCOE did just last week.

SOUL founder and executive director Marisa Fogelman called this an egregious decision, saying all conditions were met except enrollment. And the enrollment decline was a foregone conclusion instigated by SDCOE itself when it refused to give parents assurance that the school would be allowed to continue operating for another three to five years.

SOUL even achieved a balanced budget and a reserve fund, despite the lower enrollment, through donations totaling over $200,000.

Fogelman said SOUL provided extensive documentation by the due date on all the overly cumbersome conditions, with the understanding from SDCOE that the school would be allowed to fulfill both years of approval.

Yet closure is what has occurred, effective June 30, 2020 – based only on not attaining the county’s arbitrary enrollment number.

SDCOE’s school board did not vote on the revocation; the decision was made solely by the county superintendent.

The county was demanding that SOUL attain an enrollment of 145 students, but Fogelman said she told SDCOE that the school could not accommodate that high a number in SOUL’s facility.

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“They said that the enrollment number wasn’t as important as long as we were financially sound,” said Fogelman, who reiterated that she provided clear evidence of SOUL’s sound fiscal situation.

“At the time, we asked them to change the enrollment number as written and they wouldn’t. In hindsight, it appears to be a loophole they had intended on using from the beginning.”

Foregone conclusion

It’s heart-breaking to see how poorly this start-up has been treated – beginning from the San Dieguito Union High School District’s dismissal of approval to SDCOE’s ultimate decision to shutter the school.

San Dieguito felt threatened by the idea of a charter school in its midst and recommended to the county office of education not to approve the school. So SOUL went to the county for permission.

After a lengthy and testy SDCOE board meeting, the school was given approval in January 2017 to operate for two years, through to June 30, 2019.

In January 2019, after emotional testimony from SOUL students, parents and teachers who pleaded to the county board to grant a three-year extension through to 6/30/22, a two-year conditional approval was given to operate through 6/30/21 – to tremendous disappointment of families and staff.

The lack of certainty in the school’s continued operations cut into its enrollment, as families were reluctant to enroll their kids in a school without assurances of longevity.

SOUL was doomed from the start, despite the amount of detailed work founders did to establish a rigorous, project-based learning curriculum that conformed to state standards, while maintaining a focus on social and emotional aspects of teen development.

SOUL even achieved WASC accreditation and attained “a-g” course approval from the University of California.

Fogelman said SOUL’s special education students outperformed the state, county, San Diego Unified and San Dieguito in science and English on state testing. “And not by small margins,” she said.

But the handwriting was on the wall all along, with constraints designed to prevent success.

The school also fell victim to the new political landscape to close charter schools for any excuse charter opponents could find.

A merger

Nevertheless, Fogelman refuses to give up. She recently announced to parents that SOUL will be merging with another San Diego school, Sisu Academy. Sisu is a non-profit, tuition-free boarding school launched in 2019 to educate and house girls and young women.

Funded by entrepreneurs and seed capital, the two combined schools intend to provide a strong learning environment with a focus on entrepreneurship and social and emotional needs.

Good to see that Fogelman remains determined not to abandon her vision for a new model for education. But it’s a sad day when innovation in educational ideas that have been shown to work can be shut down on a whim.

“With the support of our amazing team, students, and families, SOUL has experienced significant accomplishments since our inception,” Fogelman said in an email. “Unfortunately, the amazing work we’ve done has been without the support from SDCOE.

“As a charter school authorizer, they’ve made decisions that are out of integrity with their word, continue to place politics before kids, and appear to have sworn allegiance to tradition over innovation.

“SOUL will continue to rise up and honor our mission to serve our community, prioritize our children, and pioneer a new model of education that is accessible to all.”

*****

What these two issues have in common is administrations refusing to place the interest of students ahead of all else. Not in any universe does prioritizing an expensive new district office or shutting down an innovative school put kids first.

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


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