EDUCATION MATTERS: Taking care of housekeeping

By Marsha Sutton


Please forgive the smattering of odds and ends that make up the bulk of Education Matters this week. Having collected a number of follow-ups, postscripts, updates and brief items of interest in my to-do basket, I thought it best to sum it all up in one column, clean out the file and make a fresh start of it, in preparation for the next round of data accumulation.

Topping the list is an update, requested by many readers, of the investigation into the case of the Torrey Pines High School student who was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and gross vehicular manslaughter in connection with the death of fellow student Alex Capozza.

As reported, the investigation into the party the night before the crash is ongoing.

“It’s still an open case [although] we don’t have a lot of witnesses coming forward,” said Shelley Bishop last month. Bishop is an investigator with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s Target Responsibility for Alcohol Connected Emergencies (TRACE) unit.

Bishop returned my call Jan. 27 to provide me with an update, although it’s not much. When asked how she would go about verifying the rumors that one identified individual provided the alcohol, she replied, “If you go to them [the accused] directly, it’s a guaranteed ‘no.’ If I confront someone, I don’t want to show my hand.”

The teens in a position to know what happened are still not speaking to authorities on the record. And without witnesses willing to be named, Bishop said her hands are tied. She said she still plans to speak with the driver of the car, now serving time in the youth correctional facility at Camp Barrett in east San Diego County. And she has not dropped the case.

Why and why not Race to the Top

In my story that ran a few weeks ago on the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) money that the Department of Education is awarding to states that meet specific conditions for qualification, the discussion centered around the apparent lack of enthusiasm of San Diego County school districts to apply for a piece of the pie.

As noted in the story, only 14 of the county’s 42 school districts signed the Memorandum of Understanding put forth by the California Department of Education.

Locally, the Solana Beach School District and the San Dieguito Union High School District did not sign the MOU, while the Del Mar Union and the Rancho Santa Fe school districts did.

DMUSD Superintendent Sharon McClain explained why her district signed the MOU. She acknowledged that there were good reasons not to sign and originally advised against it. But when she learned that the district could disengage as more information became available, she decided to counsel her board to go ahead and sign.

“If the parameters of the program still aren’t clear by April when the funding is supposed to be disbursed, then I’ll advise the board to back out at that time,” McClain said.

This may be the right course of action, since signing the MOU is not binding. But not signing is. At least this time around.

“Based on the state’s preliminary plan, only those that join the application will receive a portion of the funding,” read a School Services of California report on the RTTT program.

All states needed to submit their applications for RTTT funding by Jan. 19. SSC experts said that California won’t know if it will be awarded any RTTT money – estimated for California to be between $350 million and $700 million – until April at the earliest.

Then those that signed the MOU will have 90 days to submit a statement detailing how they will meet the RTTT conditions. At that time, they will be allowed to back out if they choose.

Solana Beach teachers’ contract

The current three-year agreement between the Solana Beach School District and the Solana Beach Teachers Association terminates June 30, 2010. A public hearing date to consider a new proposal has been tentatively set for March 11, at the regularly scheduled school board meeting.

The hearing gives members of the public an opportunity to express their views on the proposed negotiations. According to the school district, copies of the initial proposals submitted by the district and the employee organization, and the current collective bargaining agreements, must be made available for public inspection, as stated by Government Code Section 3547. All materials can be reviewed at the district office.

Government Code Section 3547 states in part, “Meeting and negotiating shall not take place on any proposal until a reasonable time has elapsed after the submission of the

proposal to enable the public to become informed and the public has the opportunity to express itself regarding the proposal at a meeting of the public school employer.”

So, unless I’ve gone daft, why have we never seen a similar announcement for this type of public hearing for other local districts? Good question. Expect follow-up soon.

A $76,000 donation was accepted by the Solana Beach School District from its Solana Beach Foundation for Learning, at the school board’s Jan. 14 meeting. And $50,000 was accepted by Solana Santa Fe School, donated by the SSF Parent-Teacher Organization at the school board’s Feb. 11 meeting.

The SBSD will pay $26,500 to facilitator Carolyn Perino this fiscal year to provide services in support of the district’s strategic planning process.

Del Mar student demographics

Some interesting statistics released by the Del Mar Union School District in December show that the student population is 64 percent white, 27 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent other subgroups. Between 2004 and 2009, the percentage of white students declined, from 71.2 percent to 63.5 percent, while the percentage of Asian students increased in the same period of time, from 20.8 percent to 26.5 percent.

Academic performance between 2005 and 2009 increased in all subgroups, based on the results of annual state-mandated testing and the subsequent Academic Performance Index, which is a number ranging from 200 to 1,000 that measures student achievement.

White students had an API of 934 in 2005 and 954 in 2009. Hispanic students went from 811 to 881, Asians from 981 to 994 and special education students from 815 to 855.

In the 2008-2009 school year, 3 percent of students qualified to participate in the federal Free or Reduced Price lunch program, an indicator of poverty.

San Dieguito Special Education

The San Dieguito Union High School District held a special board workshop on Feb. 4 to discuss student support systems. Details on SDUHSD special education were provided in the packet.

Of the approximately 12,000 SDUHSD students, the number who have active Individualized Education Programs is 1,188 – or about 10 percent of the district’s total population. Of these IEPs, 427 are classified as specific learning disabled, 330 are “other” health impaired, 144 are speech language impaired, 115 are autistic, 82 are emotionally disturbed and the rest fall into a variety of other categories that include orthopedically impaired and mental retardation.

School districts are mandated to provide free home-to-school transportation to special education students if needed or requested, and 153 students currently receive these services. Thirty-seven students have been placed in non-public schools at SDUHSD expense.

Del Mar’s surplus property money

I recently wrote that school districts were given greater flexibility by the governor last July to spend money acquired from the sale of surplus property and can now use that money, formerly reserved specifically for facilities-related projects and expenses, for any one-time purpose.

A notice issued by the nonprofit, nonpartisan School Services of California in September stated that districts are allowed “to use proceeds from the sale of surplus property for any one-time general fund purpose even if the surplus property was sold before the revised budget was signed on July 28, 2009.”

This news is relevant for the Del Mar Union School District, which has $8.5 million burning a hole in its pocket from the sale of the Shores land on Ninth Street to the city of Del Mar. The district, in search of a home for a new district office, is contemplating options.

Although the flexibility is technically true, there is some impact for exercising this freedom.

Said SSC associate vice president Maureen Evans, “There are specifics for the hoops that the districts would have to go though to use the surplus property money for a one-time purpose, and they are specifically laid out in the education code.”

The biggest impediment is related to state bond money.

“If they use this flexibility, they are not eligible for 10 years out for any state bond proceeds for construction,” Evans said.

A new section of education code (section 17463.7) was recently added that explains options and restrictions in greater detail, she said.

Even with the former restrictions in place, the surplus property money does not need to be used to buy land or a building. Acceptable capital expenditures include renovations, refurbishments, expansions or any other facilities-related expense. This may include a project such as the installation of solar panels which are costly initially but offer a return on investment over time. This would be considered a capital improvement.

Hills and Heights zoning questions

Regarding the search for a new district office for the DMUSD, there’s been talk recently of zoning issues that may or may not complicate any changes to Del Mar Hills or Del Mar Heights schools.

Because the Shores property, situated in the city of Del Mar, was zoned for Public Use, many were surprised to learn that the Hills and the Heights, located in the city of San Diego, are zoned residential.

Bernie Turgeon, senior planner with the city of San Diego, confirmed that both properties are single-family residential zones with different development standards, including minimum lot sizes. The Hills land has a 6,000-square-foot minimum lot size, and the property at the Heights, located adjacent to state park land, has a 15,000-square-foot minimum.

“The 15,000 is because the canyon is open space, and we don’t want to cram units against it,” Turgeon said.

The question raised is whether the school district can place a district office at one of these sites, with or without maintenance operations and with or without occupied classrooms in a shared-use configuration. On this issue, Turgeon was less certain.

“That’s a question that I can’t precisely answer, because it gets more to the legal issue of how state agencies are set up vis-a-vis local governments – whose regulations apply and in what circumstance,” he said. “All I do know is [that] ... school districts are not subject to local regulations for their primary purpose which is education. And that’s by state law, because they’re a higher level state agency.”

Turgeon said school districts must abide by the California Environmental Quality Act, because CEQA is a state law. But whether CEQA or the Coastal Commission would need to be involved should a district office be placed at a school site was unclear. And the hypothetical question becomes more complicated when the possibility of a district office combined with child care, several grade levels of students, and/or a maintenance yard are factored in.

Although unsure, Turgeon supposed that the zoning would stand as long as the site was being used for its primary purpose, which is education or educational support.

Turgeon suggested turning to the school district or attorneys schooled in the details of the state’s education code for clarification, but DMUSD’s assistant superintendent Dena Whittington said the district has no definitive answers at present and is investigating the matter.

I was still curious about the residential zoning and how it came about.

“When we plan for schools ... the zoning often will be similar to the surrounding privately owned properties,” Turgeon said. “In this case, it’s in a single-family neighborhood of different densities.”

If a school is in a commercial area, then the property might be zoned commercial, he said.

So if the district were to sell either the Hills or the Heights (which no one is even contemplating as far as anyone knows, so please, no one panic), the residential zoning would apply.

“Once the school turns it over to another entity that’s not a school, like a private developer, we [the city] take jurisdiction of land use and zoning,” Turgeon said.

If the land were developed as residential, lot sizes and configurations would be similar to the surrounding neighborhood, “except the one that’s on the canyon,” he said. “That actually would have larger lots, and obviously that was done because it’s a more sensitive location on a canyon.”

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: