School district drama continues

DEL MAR — Just as tensions were beginning to ease in the Del Mar Union School District, a new drama unfolded at the March 10 meeting after Superintendent Sharon McClain presented recommendations for future costs savings that included boundary adjustments and reconfiguring two schools.
With uneven enrollment at its eight schools, state budget cuts and the need to relocate its administrative offices, the district formed an advisory committee last year to identify and recommend use of any excess space.
The group spent eight months developing several proposals, including some that would have closed Del Mar Hills Academy or Ashley Falls School. Those options divided communities and resulted in frequent standing-room-only board meetings that were often contentious.
Emotions finally settled Feb. 10 when the board followed McClain’s recommendation and voted unanimously to leave all schools open, but the district still had no solutions for the problems it hoped to help solve by convening the advisory committee.
McClain said she was directed at the Feb. 25 meeting to return with cost-saving recommendations that included reducing the number of students at Sage Canyon to eliminate the need for additional administrators and redrawing boundaries to balance enrollment districtwide.
One recommendation designated Ashley Falls as the home school for all new students in the Palacios and Meadows Del Mar neighborhoods. Students living in those areas currently attend Sage Canyon and would not be required to change schools. Their younger siblings entering kindergarten could also attend Sage Canyon.
Michele Shoemaker, who lives in Palacios, recalled when the area went through a similar boundary adjustment several years ago. “I’ve been through it before and I don’t see the need to go through it again,” she said. “There was name-calling and crying — by the adults.”
“Our community is our elementary school,” Alisha Kresher said, noting that many parents become friends with their neighbors by volunteering at the neighborhood school.
McClain said she didn’t want to “negate” that, but boundary changes are sometimes inevitable and the least disruptive way to decrease enrollment because students don’t have to change schools. She also said about 250 parents — a much larger number than in most districts — currently drive their children to schools within the district that aren’t their home schools.
Another recommendation that drew emotional responses from parents would reconfigure Del Mar Hills and Del Mar Heights so one served students in preschool and kindergarten and the other housed grades one through six.
“You just couldn’t stand the thought that we might not close,” said Liz Shopes, a Del Mar Hills parent. “Why are you so mean to us? Why do you hate us so much?”
Glenda Darian called the recommendation “offensive and completely unfair.”
“To tease us and torment us is just wrong,” she said.
Although McClain’s proposal would leave all schools open, she said parents feel designating one for preschool and kindergarten only is the same as closure.
“I felt badly after last night’s meeting, but I cannot ignore something that I think is going to save the district money,” said McClain, adding that the current financial situation for education is the worst she’s seen in her 11 years as a superintendent.
“We could lose out by not being careful,” she said.
The reconfiguration proposal included creating a for-profit early childhood education center based on a successful program currently used in Manhattan Beach, McClain said. Housed at the school that was designated for kindergarten, it would be a preschool open to all children, including the current special education students.
Trustees voted to defer discussion of McClain’s recommendations to a later meeting because most said they felt the information wasn’t posted early enough, although McClain said she was advised by legal counsel that she had adhered to all codes and laws.
McClain said she didn’t expect trustees to take action on the proposals. She was merely seeking direction on whether to pursue them in more detail.
According to the agenda, trustees were also scheduled to possibly take action on a new site for the administrative offices. That was also deferred. Chuck Wasker, a broker working with the district to find a new location for its offices, said he and his colleagues “continue to analyze several different opportunities.”
Meanwhile, at the March 8 meeting, Del Mar City Council granted the district a one-year lease extension at the Shores property on Ninth Street, where the administrative offices, employee child care and maintenance and operations are currently located.
McClain said she expects to have everything except administration relocated by May or June 2011, when the lease expires. Administrators may now remain until August 2012 unless a site is identified and ready for move-in before then.

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