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Commentary: Del Mar Heights School: Alternate Plan
John Gartman | Pine Needles

“Calif. Dept. of Education minimum requirements for grades 4-6 alone are 142,560 sq ft for field and 32,000 sq ft for courts. These requirements are self-policing by school districts who build with local bond money.”

Over the last five months, many of you have watched or participated in the public interplay over the new Heights school design. There’s been outcry over the 50% field shrinkage. Big mistakes on field and green space measurements have been exposed, yet school district overstatement continues. Public questions about the blacktop silently shrinking 56% have gone unanswered. The new school will leave children with insufficient play areas, prioritizing expansion of the buildings by 28% for no projected growth in student population. DMUSD (Del Mar Union School District) board meetings have overflowed into the hallways with critics waiting to speak, and local concerns have poured out in published letters, news stories, and on hundreds of community yard signs. Play Outside Del Mar’s email updates have been opened 20,000 times, by people hopeful that our community can save the field of dreams for the kids of today and tomorrow.

In January, with frustration peaking over district intransigence, a citizen spent several hundred hours crafting an alternative plan that would have saved 85% of the fields and 67% of the blacktop. It did so without any change to the new educational facilities being proposed by the district and without reduction of the expanded parking and traffic queue - by clever use of underutilized site acreage. Community members hired a top fire consultant to confirm improved building placement, emergency vehicle flow, and safer evacuation from wildfires.
There was hope for optimism when the district’s hired architect told us “it’s not done until it’s won,” and our elected trustees asked that the alternative plan be given serious consideration. The public then patiently waited for the district’s answer to be revealed at the February board meeting. Little did we know. We were just being played. The district had already finished its construction documents and had even met with the Division of the State Architect (DSA) to start review before the February board meeting. The DSA gives final approval to all California public school plans. We obtained the plans – 319 pages dated February 11, 13, and 28 – by public records request to the DSA. This happened under our noses while district leadership strung us along.

It’s galling that DMUSD staff told the public in January the next steps would be released of environmental documents for public review and comment on the impact on public resources such as community recreational space, wildfire risk, and traffic impact in the surrounding neighborhoods. The California environmental law (CEQA) instructs public agencies to avoid “taking actions” or “giving impetus” to a project in a manner that would “limit the choice of alternatives . . . before completion of CEQA compliance.” With a plan already formulated to the nails and studs and discussions with DSA underway, the district has turned a blind eye to California’s signature public protection law.

On April 14, the board of trustees will vote on the site plan and environmental review. It’s a legally required public vote. But don’t kid yourself into thinking there’s doubt as to the outcome. Citizens deserve better for a $55M publicly funded project.



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