Del Mar hears school closure proposals

DEL MAR — An advisory panel seeking further direction as it considers which Del Mar schools, if any, should be closed or reconfigured obtained just that from trustees at the Aug. 26 board meeting.
The seven-member committee also received suggestions from many of the approximately 100 attendees who were mostly parents of students at Ashley Falls Elementary, one of four schools being considered for change by the group. Not surprisingly, they don’t want their neighborhood school to close. But neither do parents with children at other schools.
“Anything you do will be unpopular,” said David Skinner, president of the Del Mar California Teachers Association and a teacher at Carmel Del Mar Elementary, another school being eyed by the committee. But doing nothing at all wouldn’t be good either, Skinner said. Most people in the room agreed.
With declining enrollment and increasing budget cuts, Dena Whittington, assistant superintendent of business services, described a worst-case scenario of a state takeover should the district go into deficit spending, a possibility based on projections if no changes are made.
With five of its eight schools operating at half or two-thirds capacity, the board of trustees approved the formation of a 7/11 advisory panel in March. The committee, which can include no less than seven members and no more than 11, is required by the state education code when a district is considering a school closure or realignment.
After nearly a dozen meetings, the committee created several proposals involving four schools. Ocean Air, Sage Canyon and Torrey Hills were not included in any scenario because they are at or near enrollment capacity. Sycamore Ridge is also not being considered because the district has an agreement with Pardee Homes to provide space for about 650 students based on future development of Pacific Highlands Ranch.
In one proposal, Del Mar Heights would serve students in kindergarten through grade three and house employee child care and a preschool. The district offices would be relocated to Del Mar Hills, which would hold grades four through six.
In another reconfiguration, the district offices would move to Del Mar Hills, which would also become an early childhood education center for its kindergartners, those from Del Mar Heights and a preschool program. Del Mar Heights would become a first- through sixth-grade campus, with all intradistrict transfers returned to their home schools. This proposal would also include a boundary change.
Another possibility closes Del Mar Hills and returns transfers from that school to their home schools. Del Mar Hills students would attend Del Mar Heights, and the district offices and a preschool would move to the Del Mar Hills campus.
In the two proposals involving Ashley Falls, one would close the site and move students to neighboring schools, while another would keep the campus open to house the district offices.
The proposal that did not recommend closing or reconfiguring any campus would place the district facilities at various schools throughout the district. Although obviously popular with parents and students, this option resulted in no cost savings. For security and operational reasons, district officials said the preference is to house all administrative offices at the same location.
All plans involving Del Mar Hills and Heights put maintenance operations at Del Mar Hills with a new building added to the freeway side of the campus. The district offices and employee child care are currently located on Ninth Street at the Shores property, which the city purchased last year. The district must relocate by 2011 or begin paying rent.
Emotions aside, the decision is further complicated because some campuses have joint-use agreements with the city of San Diego, while others were funded with Mello-Roos taxes. Closing those sites could result in precedent-setting lawsuits. Many parents also said they believe enrollment projections are inaccurate and don’t take into account the recent high turnover in real estate.
Jennifer Fry, whose children attend Ashley Falls, said younger families are moving into her neighborhood. She said there are seven children younger than 5 on her street. Heidi Neihart, also an Ashley Falls parent, said there are five youngsters 3 and under on her block.
Projections by two different companies within a year put 2014 enrollment at Ashley Falls anywhere between 242 students and 432.
Bob Shopes, chairman of the committee, said each proposal is a work in progress and the panel is still considering other options as well. He said the group will have at least two more meetings and two public workshops before making its final recommendations to the board in a few months. Trustees, who are expected to make a decision in December, said they would like the committee to come back with three to five proposals.
Meanwhile, the board ranked some of the criteria the committee was using to guide its decisions. Trustees said the panel should consider improving the district’s financial stability and operational costs based on enrollment as the highest priorities. The group was also directed to focus on proposals that impact students, families and the community the least.
In response to comments from Kerry Traylor, former PTA president at Del Mar Hills, the board also directed the committee to hold more meetings at night, audio record all meetings and post agendas with all backup material as soon as possible.
Amy Caterina, a Del Mar Hills parent who has experienced three principals and three threats of closure in nine years, said the community recognizes the difficult situation facing the board. She said district officials should be willing to make sacrifices, including forgoing raises.
“Closing one school is not going to solve all your problems,” Caterina said, noting that parents are being put in a difficult situation as well. “We are being asked to defend our schools and that has resulted in a very torn community,” she said. “We cannot continue to fight each other. I urge all parents to put the past behind us and work together.”

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