VISTA — The first day of school on Aug. 16 will be like any other year for most students in the Vista Unified School District. For those at Beaumont Elementary and Rancho Minerva Middle schools, however, it will mark the start of the final year at their beloved campuses.
Last week, Vista Unified leaders approved a timeline to see Beaumont and Rancho Minerva close on June 30, 2024. This was the next step after the board agreed last month to close the two schools and relocate the Vista Innovation and Design Academy (VIDA) magnet program to the Rancho Minerva campus in response to declining enrollment and poor facilities.
Many questions remain unanswered regarding where displaced students will go, how they will get there and how vulnerable students will be provided the necessary resources. However, district leaders said they could only begin to tackle those matters once a timeframe has been set.
“We can’t have those questions until we get some direction from the board about what the timeline is,” Superintendent Matthew Doyle told the Vista Unified board at their July 20 meeting.
Now that a date has been locked down, the district will start communicating the timeline to families at both schools. Community forums will be held in the winter to help craft a relocation plan for students by February and finalize transportation and support guidelines by March.
Over 80% of Rancho Minerva and Beaumont students are considered low-income. Both schools also have higher rates of Hispanic students — over 90% at the middle school and 85% at Beaumont — than the districtwide rate of 65%.
Like many other districts, Vista Unified has also struggled to hire enough bus drivers to serve transportation needs, causing concerns about how students will be bused to new schools across the city.
“It’s not just where we’re putting them. We have to safety net them and the teachers and say okay, the population is gonna change, needs are gonna change, so they can support them,” said Trustee Rosemary Smithfield.
Most Beaumont students will likely be relocated to Monta Vista Elementary, within a separate attendance boundary around 1.5 miles away. The old campus will be a student swing site during the Bobier Elementary rebuild.
Rancho Minerva, which is in good condition but experiencing enrollment around half its capacity, was chosen to be the new campus for VIDA because of failing conditions at the site.
At this point, district leaders say there is space for Rancho Minerva students to be relocated to Madison and Roosevelt elementary schools for the 2024-25 school year. It remains to be seen whether those students will also be given preference to attend VIDA, which typically has a waitlist hundreds of names long.
However, the district will likely need at least another two years before students at VIDA, whose programs depend heavily on the campus’s learning labs, performing arts center and pool, can be moved to the Rancho Minerva campus.
“There needs to be considerations of the spaces, what programmatically would move around, what would work,” District COO Shawn Loescher said. “In order to do that, there would need to be not just planning time, but there needs to be construction time, and all sorts of other things that need to happen.”
While the school board was unanimous in their plans to close Beaumont, board member Rena Marrocco has been the sole dissenter against closing Rancho Minerva and making it the new VIDA site.
At the July 20 meeting, Marrocco said it is “unconscionable” to plan for kids at Rancho Minerva to be moved to Madison and Roosevelt, both on polar opposite ends of the district. She said that many families at the school already can’t drive their children to school and would have to rely on buses.
“Even in the best case scenario, you’re looking at probably an hour commute each way for these kids to go to school. Children in a situation like this, it’s putting an undue hardship on them. We are taking away the last neighborhood school in Vista, and we’re taking it away from kids that are gonna be the hardest impacted from that,” Marrocco said.
Other board members, however, noted that many of the students currently at Rancho Minerva have already been displaced from other sites due to the creation of magnet schools and said this could make things more convenient for them.
Around 15 years ago, families that previously attended the old Lincoln Middle School were moved to Rancho Minerva when the downtown campus was made into Vista Magnet Middle School. In 2014, even more students came from the former Washington Middle School when it was turned into VIDA.
“Let’s be clear … our magnets created this displacement with our middle school students,” said board member Martha Alvarado.
Keri Avila, president of the Vista Teachers Association and a consolidation committee member recommending the closure of the schools, shared similar concerns.
“Our district talks a lot about equity, but part of the problem with the magnets is it has ended the community schools in the neighborhoods where people can’t afford to have two cars,” Avila said.
Avila and other members of the nine-person committee said they were very limited in the recommendations they could make regarding how to consolidate schools.
The members were told to focus only on the condition of facilities in deciding which schools to close and relocate and that the topics of magnet schools, transportation and new attendance boundaries would be left to other committees.
When asked about these committees by Coast News, Loescher said the district will recommend to the board “what action plans and support structures facilitate those timelines.”
Measure LL, new bond
Along with a decline in enrollment by around 6,700 students over the past decade, Vista Unified is also facing a shortfall of funds to make necessary repairs to all its facilities.
Since 2018, the district has relied on a $247 million bond initiative approved by voters known as Measure LL to fund several critical projects, ranging from softball field renovations at Vista and Rancho Buena Vista high schools to new bathrooms at Casita Center and Lake elementary schools.
Beaumont was also originally planned to undergo a renovation using bond funds. However, the district abandoned this plan after determining the project would be much more expensive than originally anticipated due to mold infiltrating the school’s foundation and other structural issues.
With most Measure LL funds now spent or allocated to other projects, the district board is entertaining the idea of pursuing another bond measure, possibly as soon as next year.
On July 20, the board approved spending $28,000 for True North Research to conduct an initial bond feasibility study in the district community over the coming month.
“We know we have some serious issues to bring our school sites to safe and equitable standards in the district,” said board member Julie Kelly. “I’m in favor of dipping our toe to getting a feel for how to proceed, with how our community feels about pursuing another bond.”
Marrocco voted against the survey, stating it was too soon to consider another bond when the community is still reeling from school closures.
“I think the timing’s not right for us to proceed any further with this,” she said.