Torrey Pines batting cages donations receive delayed approval

On Sept. 14, the San Dieguito Union High School District board approved a donation for the Torrey Pines High School batting cages, correcting an error brought to light by a parent complaint. The cages have been in use since they were installed back in 2013, thanks to a $400,000 donation by an anonymous community member.

At the time, the batting cages went through the facilities planning department and the construction department but were never presented as a donation item for the board to approve.

San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) board member Joyce Dalessandro said she saw the donation as nothing more than a very generous gift to the Torrey Pines High School Foundation, the campus and the students.

“There may have been some mistakes made in the paperwork and in the giving of the gift but were these mistakes so egregious as to warrant the firestorm that has been created?” Dalessandro asked. “Why all the fury over this? I don’t think it could possibly be just about batting cages. What is the real end game here?”

The issue surrounding the batting cages began in October 2016 when parent Wendy Gumb began asking about the use of the school batting cages by travel ball teams, who seemed to have access on a regular basis. She wanted to know if they had necessary facilities use permits.

Her research showed that the cages were never approved by the Division of State Architects (DSA), which snowballed into question on the role of the foundation with the baseball team and coach hiring practices, leading to the complaint she filed to the district in January.

“I asked a simple question in October. Eleven months later, we are still asking for answers to the same question,” Gumb said.

After Gumb’s complaint, the district submitted the batting cages to DSA and they were approved in February. The district will approve a memorandum of understanding regarding the use of the cages at a future meeting.

Gumb said the batting cages became a problem for her as she believes the district’s checks and balances practices had “broken down.”

“The gifting of public funds is a serious issue in public governance,” said Gumb, noting over the last six months San Diego County has seen issues with Congressman Duncan Hunter, the superintendent of the Poway Unified School District and the lifeguard in Del Mar. “We see what this breakdown in checks and balances does to a community. We are not able to go back and fix the lack of governance that took place with respect to these cages being constructed and how they have been used and we further are unable to undo the damage of entities that have taken advantage of the good nature of our district.”

Gumb questioned whether the donation was given with an implicit or explicit agreement that some service would be rendered as a result.

Speaking during public comment, Torrey Pines baseball pitching coach Chris Possemato said he was “exhausted” by the situation, in which their team was accused of pay for play and using the cages for financial gains. In August, the California Department of Education found no evidence to support that claim.

“The integrity of the coaches at Torrey Pines is non-negotiable,” Possemato said. “I can tell you that Coach Kirk McCaskill is one of the best people I know. He spends 25 to 30 hours taking care of the field for no pay, no glory, there’s no newspaper articles about that.”

Possemato said the entire coaching staff are there because they love to coach and they love kids and they are grateful for the gift of the batting cages — “kids that the donor doesn’t even know will get to use for years and years to come.”

SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill acknowledged that the donor, who wished to remain anonymous but has been named as Andy Singer, gave the district “one of the most generous donations that we’ve ever had.”

“His intent was to build a great facility,” Dill said, noting his original plans were “quite grand” and they had to be scaled back a bit.

Dill said Singer had asked if local youth clubs would be able to use the cages if he was able to build them.

Dill said the district used to charge foundations for use of school facilities but they subsequently crafted a provision for foundation-sponsored events to have use of school facilities at no charge in recognition of the benefit that the district receives from those fundraising activities.

The foundation made an agreement with the donor to sponsor use of the cages. According to TPHS Foundation President Nicole Baril, local youth teams have use of the cages approximately 200 hours per year, bringing in $25,000 to the foundation.

“It wasn’t exclusive use,” Dill said, noting that the district facility is only made available when not in use by the school.

Singer’s son is now in college and Singer is receiving no direct benefit from his gift other than the great feeling he must have that the top rate facility is being used by so many young softball and baseball players, Dill said.

“There is no personal benefit and he didn’t even want his name attached with it — he’s never even asked for a brick,” Dill said. “Did we make an error in not presenting this donation in 2013? Yes we did. So here we are with the formality of accepting this donation.”