McClain recommends district buy property to house DMUSD office

Del Mar Union School District Superintendent Sharon McClain recommended Jan. 20 that the board of trustees buy property for the district’s headquarters. The district has $8.5 million from the sale of the Shores property in Del Mar, where it is currently housed.

The district has until May 2011 to move out of the Shores location, but staff has said that to adequately maintain district services, the move should be made by December. McClain’s recommendation was made a week after the 7-11 Committee delivered its final report to the board. The committee was unable to reach a consensus on a recommendation for where to relocate the district office and maintenance operations.

McClain said that the current real estate market is favorable to school districts and, hopefully, the district would not need to spend the entire $8.5 million. If the district does have money left over after a property purchase, McClain said the remainder could be used to build much-needed childcare facilities at Ocean Air School.

If that were to occur the district could take the $1.7 million it currently has in reserves for the Ocean Air project and transfer the money to the general fund for operating expenses or budget deficit reduction.

As alternatives to her recommendation, McClain said the board could lease office space while it continues to investigate property for sale or co-locate the office at Del Mar Hills, Torrey Hills, Ashley Falls or Carmel Del Mar schools, as was considered by the 7-11 Committee.

The board was unable to make a decision at its Jan. 20 meeting and requested staff to bring more information about the legalities of co-locating a school site, city zoning and California Environmental Quality Act costs, as well as the feasibility and cost of building a new office at Torrey Hills.

McClain and the board said it may take some time to make a fiscally sound decision, although they understand that many parents want a decision made quickly.

“This has been a very difficult process for everyone, but the board has to move on prudently and not make a mistake,” McClain said.

Trustee Annette Easton said she noticed that McClain’s recommendation did not address the issue of school closure.

“I believe it’s best to co-locate a district office rather than close a school,” McClain said. “I’m concerned about the legal ramifications of closing a school.”

With regards to saving the district money, McClain said there are still many options to explore. The recently convened financial task force will review all options.

McClain mentioned making boundary changes east of Interstate 5 as a possible cost-saving option. As Sage Canyon and Ocean Air each have around 700 students and Torrey Hills nears that size, the schools need vice principals. She said the district could save $850,000 by reducing the enrollment size of the three schools through boundary changes (students would be moved to other schools in the district). The enrollment changes would eliminate the need for the three vice principal positions. Redrawing the boundary could also help boost enrollment numbers at Ashley Falls.

The board instructed McClain to go to the Del Mar City Council to ask about extending its lease at the Shores to buy some time. McClain said the problem with extending the lease of the property is that the money to pay for the lease would have to come out of the district’s general fund.

The district’s real estate team will give a report on its office search at the board’s regular meeting on Jan. 27, after this paper’s press time.

Despite the fact that the Jan. 20 meeting was held on the night of a major storm, more than 25 attendees spoke during public comment.

Some speakers voiced concern that a delayed decision or opting to extend the Shores lease will negatively impact fundraising for the Extended Studies Curriculum because people will not want to donate when the district is in a state of flux. Ashley Falls parents again told the board that it was unsafe to put the district office on their open campus, and Del Mar Hills parents again rallied to save their school.

Will Holliday said there is no “silver bullet” to the district’s budget challenges, but school closure should be the last resort.

“Schools are a vital community resource. Closing a school in a growing, vibrant community is not an answer to these challenges,” Holliday said.

Other parents, such as Suzanne Hall, whose child attends Torrey Hills, said that while no one celebrates closing a school, the savings are too significant to ignore in a time of “belt-tightening.”

“It’s only a matter of time before we have to increase class size or cut ESC,” said Leslie Ballard, a Sage Canyon parent. “The reality is, as a board, you don’t know the depths of what this budget crisis will bring.”