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San Dieguito Board talks bonds, school violence

COAST CITIES — The County Board of Supervisors is expected to authorize San Dieguito Union High School District to issue up to $160 million in general obligation bonds. Last month the district board of trustees approved the issuance of the bonds but the plan was reworked to reflect compliance with a proposed California Assembly Bill that would place limits on the issuance of school bonds.

Board President Barbara Groth and Vice President Amy Herman agreed to discuss the district’s bond financing and other important public education issues such as the continued district focus on academic excellence and its plans to prevent school violence.

SDUHSD is a middle size suburban high school district serving more than 12,000 students in North County, including about 500 from Rancho Santa Fe.

Bond Financing: Side-Stepping the Media Hype

District Superintendant Ken Noah called last fall’s voter-approved Proposition AA, the $449 million school bond project, as the highlight of his tenure. Noah plans to retire in June, so it will be up to school board members, like Herman and Groth, to answer for how well they handle the issuance of the general obligation bonds.

With the state legislature likely to approve a bill — AB 182 from Assembly member Ben Hueso (D-San Diego), which would limit the debt ratio to no more than 4-to-1 and cap the number of years the bonds can run to no more than 25 years, Groth said they decided to play it smart.

“Our guys retooled it (to comply with AB 182) rather than going forward and getting slammed later on,” she said.

Groth said because of the media attention surrounding Poway Unified School District’s controversial capital appreciation bonds, San Dieguito now has a policy against them.

“The best you can do as a board member is make the best decision with whatever you have right there in front of you,” Groth said.

What the district is left with is a plan to modernize multiple facilities across the district, such as Torrey Pines High School which will get stadium lights and Canyon Crest Academy that will develop stadium and athletic facilities.

What’s Most Important: Academics

Board member Herman said the most important issue facing California public schools and SDUHSD specifically is improving achievement for each student.

“Our district has continued to keep the focus on this even in these difficult financial times,” Herman said.

She credits the collaborative culture that exists between district teachers for their success in this area.

“Our district test scores have continued to improve by every measure,” Herman said.

Indeed, students in all 10 of the district’s schools have improved their Academic Performance Index scores this past year, for a district-wide total increase of 10 points.

She said one challenge is the transition from traditional California Athletic Standards to the Common Core State Standards.

“This transition is something that all districts are preparing for, and our district has been working to ensure that our curriculum reflects the new standards,” Herman said. “Common core focuses more on critical thinking, problem solving, and application of knowledge and skills, rather than rote knowledge and memorization.”

School Safety in a Time of Uncertainty

With the tragedy that unfurled at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., student safety has been at the forefront of parents’ minds and at the top of school districts’ priority lists.

“We’re looking with fresh eyes at what we have in place and how it can be improved,” Groth said.

Rick Schmitt, associate superintendent of educational services, said that district teams have fanned out and analyzed each campus, focusing on access points to campuses, and making improvements to signage, door hardware, intercoms and phones and staff training.

Despite these changes, Groth said the age group of San Dieguito’s student population can be challenging.

“It’s interesting the difference between elementary school and high school,” she said. “In high schools you can plan all you want and it is chaos. Kids leave. They’ve got their own cars, they have their own phones. They’re out of there.”

She stressed the importance of school staff, especially counselors who are trained to deal with emotional issues in adolescents, making one-on-one connections with each student. They’ve hired technical staff to augment the counselor’s traditional role of tracking college units.

“We would love to have the capability of having more counselors,” she said. “I don’t want to always go back to poverty but we’ve had to cut back.”

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