CARLSBAD — While budget cuts and teacher layoffs dominate news about public education, the San Dieguito Union High School District recently discovered it is actually owed money from the state.
In 1999, the district purchased a 22-acre lot on Calle Barcelona in La Costa Valley. Residential development in the area indicated the need for a third middle school. But when enrollment began to flatten in 2003, plans for the additional school were put on hold.
The property became controversial when rumors began circulating that the district planned to sell the lot. Fliers distributed to area residents indicated the site could potentially be developed for low-income housing, a commercial center, apartments or an industrial park.
Homeowners were also upset the lot was costing taxpayers approximately $100,000 for every year it went unused beginning in 2006. According to a provision in the state education law, districts are required to pay a fee for properties not used for school purposes after specific time periods.
The state began charging the district five years after the date of acquisition. Superintendent Ken Noah said a district staff member recently discovered the five-year period applies to elementary school districts. For high school districts such as San Dieguito, with sites designated for grades seven through 12, the penalty is charged after seven years.
Noah said the district expects a refund of more than $200,000. The district also applied for an exemption after a special education class at nearby La Costa Canyon High School began using the site as an environmental lab this year.
Noah said the district could eventually only be liable for the unused site penalty for one year. He said the mistake was likely made because of a change in staff at the state level at about the same time the district began being charged the fee.
There are currently no plans to build a middle school or sell the lot, Noah said. A task force that includes parents, teachers, administrators, parent foundation presidents, district officials and community members is evaluating all properties within the 85-square-mile district, which serves about 12,500 students from Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar, Carmel Valley and Rancho Santa Fe.
Noah said recommendations from that facilities action plan are due this fall.