San Dieguito boundary issues: A policy change is long overdue


“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Marsha Sutton
(Copyright of Marsha Sutton)

French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr could have been thinking of the education system when he wrote those words in 1849: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The composition of San Dieguito Union High School District’s Board of Education has changed dramatically in each election year since 2014, as trustees come and go. There has been a revolving door for superintendents too in the past nine years.

Yet a lottery for enrollment at San Dieguito High School Academy remains district policy, even after it became clear nearly 10 years ago that change was needed.

In 2014, the requests to attend SDA far exceeded capacity. So a random generator lottery was used to select the “winners” – and a number of the “losers” were students who lived within walking or biking distance of the school, underscoring the emptiness of the promise of a neighborhood school.

That’s when the Cardiff and Encinitas communities surrounding SDA erupted in protest, with waitlisted students clamoring to get in and enraged parents complaining that their kids had a right to attend a school in their neighborhood.

As I wrote in a July 2014 column, “SDUHSD was caught off-guard by the intensity of the protests from parents who noisily made themselves heard at recent board meetings and in a barrage of emails and phone calls to district staff and board members.”

In a letter to the SDUHSD staff and board, Encinitas resident Jonathan Edelbrock wrote that the district’s policy for SDA “is an utter failure to our families and our community.”

Under intense pressure, the district did an about-face and decided to admit all waitlisted students.

Given the ability for the district to exceed capacity when parents protest loudly enough, capacity seems to be a moving target. Apparently, a school is full – and then, based on some obscure administrative calculations, it’s not.

Despite the obvious unfairness of a policy that can deny admittance to students living within blocks of a school, nothing has changed since that time.

There were heated discussions back then, and a pointless task force was created by the district and led by an outrageously expensive facilitator to review the situation. But in the end, the policy remains in place.

It’s possible that all incoming ninth-graders who select SDA as their first choice for this fall will be admitted. That’s the district’s plan. The numbers indicate that may well be the case.

But hope is not a plan.

Neither is it reasonable to approach this issue one year at a time, ignoring the potential crisis in future years.

“I believe it’s important to continually consider whether the reasons for establishing a practice years ago should still be the priority today,” said Rimga Viskanta, SDUHSD board president in an email. “I feel this should also be a determination of the community as a whole.”

Kicked down the road

San Dieguito High School Academy in Encinitas is a school of choice, meaning that any student in the entire San Dieguito district can choose to enroll there.

Canyon Crest Academy in Pacific Highlands Ranch in the southern portion of the district is also a school of choice, so enrollment and capacity issues have implications for that school as well.

Torrey Pines in the south and La Costa Canyon in the north are “boundary” high schools, meaning that any student living within either school’s established north-south boundary is guaranteed admission to that school – unless they choose and are admitted to one of the two “choice” schools.

The boundary system for the district’s four traditional high schools was created in 1997 and worked well initially. But demographics change, and the district’s policies have not kept up.

The district often refers to California Education Code 35160.5 as the relevant law that guides district enrollment policies.

Sponsored by then Calif. Assemblywoman Dede Alpert, this law, Assembly Bill 1114, passed in 1993. It allows intra-district transfers as long as seats are available.

At the time, I asked Dede Alpert about her law. She said it was never designed to prohibit children from attending their neighborhood school.

“‘Choice’ as put forth by Senator Alpert in 1993 was not written to displace children from their local, neighborhood school but to allow for ‘choice’ should space be available,” said parent and Encinitas resident Danica Edelbrock.“Our daughter was in seventh grade when we began calling for neighborhood schools in SDUHSD,” she wrote in an email. “She is graduating from college this May.

“I cannot believe this issue continues to be kicked down the road, creating unnecessary stress for incoming families. Upon starting elementary school, families should know where their child will feed into middle school and then high school.”

Some history

A board workshop that attracted nearly 200 people in late August of 2015 was held to review the boundary/enrollment situation at SDA.

What follows are some excerpts from my Sept. 3, 2015 column of the meeting, which began with a tedious two-hour presentation by district staff.

After that, public comments were heard and consisted primarily of speakers advocating for a change in policy that would create a geographic boundary around SDA to give priority to students living within the perimeter.

Those supporting existing policy included three former SDUHSD board members: Linda Friedman, Sue Hartley and Dee Rich.

On the board in 2015 were Joyce Dalessandro, Beth Hergesheimer, Amy Herman, Maureen Muir and John Salazar. Rick Schmitt was superintendent then.

Hergesheimer supported no change in policy but expressed some hope that LCC would market itself better to prospective students.

Muir advocated for parity among the schools, “so there’s not a lottery.”

Herman supported no change, saying it has worked well over the years.

Dalessandro was most vocal, saying she saw “no evidence presented that’s a compelling enough reason to change the current system.”

She said the system has been “working almost flawlessly since its inception” – seeming to ignore the fact that it obviously wasn’t working well at all at the time.

Only board member John Salazar sympathized with the neighborhood school advocates, saying, “It makes logical sense to create small boundaries” around SDA to give priority to those who live nearby. “The current system is broken.”

Taking direction from the board (there was no formal vote), Schmitt said, “We will carry on as we have for the past 19 years.”

The more things change …

The high school selection timeline for the fall of 2023 opened Jan. 30 and closes Feb. 17, with a lottery held, if necessary, on Feb. 24 to be eligible to attend SDA or CCA.

Bryan Marcus, SDUHSD’s Associate Superintendent of Educational Services, said ninth-grade enrollment at the two high schools in the north is currently balanced as of Jan. 11, with 433 at La Costa Canyon and 432 at SDA.

So the hope is that SDA will have capacity for all incoming ninth-graders this fall.

Asked about school capacity, the district’s communications spokesperson Miquel Jacobs said, “At the current moment, we are refraining from making public comments on a maximum capacity number so as to not inadvertently affect the high school selection decisions that individual students and their families may make over the next four weeks.”

The 2022 data from the state show enrollment at all four high schools at: 2,145 for SDA, 1,647 for LCC, 2,346 for CCA, and 2,649 for Torrey Pines High School.

Both “choice” schools have what’s called a 4x4 schedule which allows students to complete four classes per semester, for eight classes per year. Torrey Pines and La Costa Canyon utilize a more traditional schedule of six classes a year.

Both SDA and CCA emphasize an arts focus and do not offer football.

There are also academic success indicators that set some schools apart from others.

But perhaps over-riding all other factors is proximity.

Families want their kids to attend a neighborhood school for convenience, environmental reasons and students’ social needs.

Boundary changes are one of the most contentious topics any school district confronts.

But a 26-year-old policy with a lottery system that does not offer priority to kids who live close to their school is wrong. It’s not student-centered, isn’t fair and defies common sense.

A policy change is long overdue.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at

Marsha Sutton is a columnist and presents her opinion. If you disagree or agree with her opinion, we’d like to hear from you. Email your comment to

Column: Combines reporting, storytelling and commentary to make a point. Unlike reporters, columnists are allowed to include their opinions. Columnists in the Union-Tribune Community Press are identified clearly to set them apart from news reporters.