Ashley Falls School removed from chopping block

Members of the Ashley Falls School community can breathe a little easier now, knowing that a proposal to close their school was taken off the table at the Dec. 2 meeting of the Del Mar Union School District’s 7-11 committee.

Members of the Del Mar Hills Academy community, however, still face the possibility of losing their school to a districtwide reconfiguration.

The committee narrowed its proposals down to six, two of which call for closing the Hills. Two other proposals, A and D, which would split grade levels at the Hills and neighboring Del Mar Heights School, were removed from the table.

The committee will recommend to the DMUSD board closing the Hills as a good solution, although several members said they don’t think closing a school is the best idea.

Committee member Wayne Harris said it “tears his heart out” to propose closing the Hills.

“I’m not in favor of closing any school,” committee member Jennifer Emberger said. “I don’t think it makes long-term sense or saves enough money.”

In a five-hour meeting that Ashley Falls parent Doug Rafner compared to watching sausage being made, the committee pored through the details of enrollment data and cost-saving predictions. It hesitated to vote for fear that none of its nine proposals would survive.

The committee decided against recommending that Ashley Falls be shuttered because it is considered one of student growth and its closure would lead to two other schools being filled to capacity. It is also in a Mello-Roos district, where residents fund local benefits such as schools. Should the district decide to close the school, it could face a lawsuit from taxpayers, who paid to have the school built.

Projections studied at Wednesday’s meeting show that closing Ashley Falls could result in approximately 716 students transferring to Sycamore Ridge and 612 to Carmel Del Mar by 2011. Those campuses would then reach 101 percent and 107 percent capacity.

Emberger said, aside from the Mello-Roos issue, closing Del Mar Hills could be taken off the table for the same reasons as Ashley Falls. Closing Del Mar Hills would result in a combined Hills/Heights school of 597 and Carmel Del Mar of 578 by 2011, putting both at 101 percent capacity.

Emberger and Bob Shopes were the only committee members in favor of removing the Hills closure from their list of proposals. The others said that the projected savings estimate of $585,973 a year if the Hills closed is too great to not propose to the school board.

“That’s recurring savings, every year,” said committee member Janet Handell, adding that in five years the district would save $2.5 million.

But Emberger and Shopes said those savings could be useless because in 10 years, schools might be overcapacity and there might be a need for the district to build another school.

Parent Elizabeth Prag said that when the Hills closes, the new Hills/Heights would instantly be overcrowded, which should be considered unacceptable.

“Already there is no blacktop, we don’t even have lunch tables, which the community accepts because there’s so little blacktop,” Prag said. “It isn’t right to ask any students to attend a school under those conditions just because we made it look right on paper.”

Parent Marybeth Norgren said a third of Heights students already attend class in portables and environmental constraints make it difficult and expensive to modify the campus.

Public hearings were scheduled for Dec. 7 and Dec. 10 and, while Ashley Falls parents will most likely be quiet, a new group of parents has found its voice: Parents at Torrey Hills. The group says it is “late to the party” but is very concerned about proposal G, which suggests building a new district office on surplus land at Torrey Hills.

Parents said traffic issues are already at their peak and if a new building goes up, students will lose play space on an already crowded campus.

“The end is not in sight with regard to our budget woes, and this is less savings than closing a school,” Torrey Hills parent Suzanne Hall said. “It’s important that you prioritize budget issues.”