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School to stay open, but money woes remain

DEL MAR — The Del Mar Union School District board of trustees followed the lead of an advisory committee at a Jan. 20 special meeting by voting unanimously not to close Ashley Falls Elementary School as a means to deal with budget cuts, uneven enrollment and a need to relocate the district offices.
Administrators, parents and the trustees themselves had also hoped the board would make a final decision on how best to solve the district’s woes either that night or at the regular meeting one week later.
But after reading the advisory committee’s 42-page final summary, trustees had about two dozen additional questions for Superintendent Sharon McClain, who told the five-member board it would take at least two weeks to address all the new concerns.
Trustees spent most of the three-and-a-half-hour meeting listening to comments from about 30 parents. A few, such as Camino del Mar parent Kate Takahashi, were open to any option.
“No matter what happens, my kids are probably going to be OK,” she said. “I don’t really care where my child goes. Of course that’s easy to say because my school isn’t on the chopping block (but) teachers make the school.”
Most speakers, however, urged the board to reject proposals that would close any school or co-locate the district offices on a school campus.
The administrative offices are currently located on Ninth Street at the former home of Del Mar Shores Elementary, which closed to students in 1975. The city bought the site in May 2008, but allowed administrators and employee child care to remain.
According to the lease, the district will pay the city $30,000 this spring and must vacate the site in May 2011.
The advisory committee was evaluating excess space at the district’s eight schools as an option for relocating the administration. “This is a bad idea on so many levels … not the least of which is the safety of our children,” Ashley Falls parent Gavin Herst said, noting that the school has multiple points of entry.
Heidi Niehart, also the parent of an Ashley Falls student, told trustees they had no right to make changes at the school “because you don’t own the land.” It was purchased with Mello-Roos funds, which use homeowner fees to buy school property. Many parents said they would take legal action, if necessary, to avoid placing the offices on a school site.
“I’m feeling kind of unpopular tonight because no one wants us,” McClain said after the public comment period ended.
As the advisory committee sought to evaluate surplus space in the district, administrators have been working with real estate agents to possibly buy property using funds from the sale of the Shores property. This was the option recommended by McClain. She said leasing space doesn’t make sense financially and could cost the district more money in the long run.
Co-location, the other alternative, would be somewhat problematic because administrators share staff members, files and other information and services. It also presented some legal challenges as it would likely require zoning changes in two cities, a possible environmental impact review and California Coastal Commission approval. There are also issues with joint-use agreements and restrictions on Mello-Roos funding.
The state education code requires the formation of a 7/11 Committee, which must be made up of between seven and 11 people, to secure community involvement and assist in making the best possible judgment regarding school property or space.
Del Mar Union convened the group last May to review data such as projected school enrollment to determine the amount of surplus space and real property. School closure could be considered as an option, but not the sale of school property — a common consideration for other 7/11 committees.
Members developed six alternatives, two of which would have closed Del Mar Hills Academy and one that would have closed Ashley Falls. Ultimately, the group couldn’t approve any proposal with the required 80 percent majority, however, there was a unanimous vote to leave Ashley Falls open.
The committee’s work was advisory only. It is up to the board to decide which, if any, recommendations it will implement. Trustees are expected to continue the discussion at the Feb. 17 board meeting.
Meanwhile, McClain was directed to meet with city officials to negotiate a lease extension at the Shores property. Real estate agents were scheduled to present purchase options for district office space at the Jan. 27 meeting.

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