Solana Beach School District to make decision on housing options for Pacific Highlands Ranch students

The Vista Santa Fe community still under construction in Pacific Highlands Ranch is assigned to Solana Santa Fe in Rancho Santa Fe.
(Karen Billing)

The Solana Beach School District board is ready to move forward and make a decision on how it will accommodate students from the expanding neighborhoods in Pacific Highlands Ranch. At its Oct. 10 meeting, the board will decide whether to build school number eight in Pacific Highlands Ranch, to expand Solana Ranch Elementary School or utilize its existing facilities to handle the influx of students from the enrollment wave from new development.

Solana Beach is preparing to absorb students from 290 new homes in 2019-20 and 174 in 2020-21.

All of the incoming PHR neighborhoods have been assigned to schools and the district worked to make those assignments prior to homes being on the market. Last year the board heard numerous concerns about the assignments from PHR residents who must leave the community to drive about four miles to school at Carmel Valley’s Carmel Creek or Solana Pacific or some three miles to school in Rancho Santa Fe’s Solana Santa Fe, dealing with local traffic. Some residents submitted a petition to be re-assigned back to Solana Ranch while some Solana Ranch parents asked that the district reverse the decision to send any more students to the school citing an already overcrowded campus.

In response, the district held a series of community outreach sessions and put off a decision for long-term housing until this fall when they had a year’s worth of enrollment data.

The time to make that decision is now: On Sept. 13, the district received notification from Pardee Homes that the developer has pulled its 1,600th dwelling unit permit in Pacific Highlands Ranch, triggering the 60-day clock on the district’s decision to purchase the 10-acre site on Golden Cypress Place to build school number 8.

With all of the information to digest, the board will hold a special meeting on Oct. 10 at 3:30 p.m. prior to the regular board meeting at 6:30 p.m.—both meetings will be at Solana Ranch Elementary School.

“This is a big decision for everybody and we want to get it right,” said board member Gaylin Allbaugh.

With big decisions looming, the board held a three-hour-long workshop on the topic on Sept. 26. Small community group meetings were additionally held to gather input and share information.

At the board’s workshop, SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said the big question when they look at housing options is whether the district will need school #8 in the long-term once they get over the enrollment wave.

“It’s not just about the money,” Brentlinger said, noting that the board could make a decision now that would put them in the difficult position of having to close one or two schools in the future due to low enrollment.

As far as money, the district currently has $40 million in community facilities district (CFD) funds available and it is estimated that a new 368-student school would cost $55 million, including the $6.9 million purchase of the property from Pardee.

“We’re coming up short about $15 million,” Brentlinger said of building a new school. “If we use all $40 million to build school eight than we will have no additional funds for improvements at Solana Ranch.”

Proposed improvements at Solana Ranch still in the conceptual phase include a larger multi-use room, increasing security fencing, extending the parking lot, improved walkways from the surrounding neighborhoods and an expansion of the kindergarten playground.

Brentlinger said the district received fair amount of criticism from the public about their construction escalation costs but they believe they are pretty on target with the numbers when comparing the project to neighboring Del Mar Union School District’s projects. Del Mar is looking at a $54.6 million cost for the new Del Mar Heights School (a maximum enrollment of 500 students) and $65 million for the new Pacific Highlands Ranch School (a maximum enrollment of 450 students), which includes the land acquisition on Solterra Vista Parkway.

The current capacity at Solana Ranch is 690 students, with four modular classrooms on the school’s blacktop. Solana Ranch’s enrollment was 572 students last year and is at 588 this year, with 36 seats available for incoming students without making any staffing changes.

The board’s option to expand Solana Ranch would add an additional two-story classroom building is estimated to cost $10.5 million.

“We don’t believe expanding Solana Ranch would be necessary in the long run so we could potentially be overbuilt once the enrollment wave goes through,” Brentlinger said.

The district’s option to utilize existing facilities would require additional classroom space at both Solana Santa Fe and Solana Pacific. The option would include two relocatable classroom buildings at Solana Pacific at a cost of $880,000 and removing the eight-classroom portables and replacing it with a permanent 10-classroom building at Solana Santa Fe, a cost of $4 million.

At Solana Santa Fe, they have capacity for 460 students with 308 students currently enrolled. Solana Santa Fe is slated for a campus modernization in 2021-22, which in addition to new classrooms includes parking lot and traffic flow improvements and kindergarten classroom and administration office upgrades.

At the Sept. 26 workshop, the board considered the projected student generation rates from PHR neighborhoods and options on how they will assign students back to Solana Ranch when space becomes available. The board expressed an interest in assigning future students from the Santa Barbara neighborhood off Del Mar Heights Road to Carmel Creek and Solana Pacific rather than Solana Ranch. The 97-home development currently has 24 students attending Solana Ranch.

The board looked at options such as a lottery with intradistrict transfer requests, a lottery for all developments or adopting specific criteria for enrollment such as a community’s student generation rates or assigning priority to those within the CFDs as they have with the intradistrict transfer process.

Brentlinger said the district is not discussing changes to the attendance boundaries to Solana Ranch, with the exception of the board’s discussion about Santa Barbara.

During public comment, Pacific Highlands Ranch resident Bruce Cameron shared his idea for considering enrollment on a home by home basis rather than by neighborhood, creating a priority waitlist determined by when a homeowner closed escrow.

“By adding students to the school when capacity allows on a household by household basis it provides the district a much more precise tool to manage enrollment,” Cameron said. “It would also potentially allow us to bring kids into the school sooner than waiting for enough seats to be available for an entire neighborhood.”

Cameron said ultimately the district needs to make a decision on what’s best for all students, creating manageable class sizes today and flexibility for more students to attend Solana Ranch in the future once the “move-in bump” has subsided.

SBSD Vice President Rich Leib said Mello Roos fees have become an important parameter for him in reassigning students back to Solana Ranch.

Homeowners in PHR that fall within the boundaries of the district are part of one of two CFDs or Mello-Roos Districts. By law, all tax proceeds generated from the districts must be used for the benefit of students generated within the CFDs. Some homeowners in communities like those in Casabella and Artesana pay two different Mello Roos fees and are still not able to attend their neighborhood school, Leib said.

“I want as many kids as possible to go to their neighborhood school,” Leib said. “I know this is not necessarily popular but I do think Solana Ranch can be larger.”

Leib said he is most interested in considering options that get more seats at Solana Ranch, such as reassigning Santa Barbara and possibly creating additional K-6 classrooms in the existing preschool building on the campus. Other board members agreed that bringing in that additional space from the preschool building to serve PHR families should be explored.

“Although it’s a wonderful thing that we have the preschool there…it’s not part of our direct, primary mission of K-6,” Clerk Debra Schade said.

Board member Vicki King said she would be interested in learning the cost associated with re-configuring the preschool classrooms to K-6 as well as cost of relocating the preschool to another campus.

King and board member Allbaugh expressed concerns that bringing additional classrooms to Solana Ranch could be overbuilding the school in the long run.

“There’s a good number of families at Solana Ranch that feel that adding more kids could push it into an unhealthy number,” Allbaugh said.

Allbaugh said adding more classrooms not only requires additional STREAM discovery lab space and scheduling changes but there are also “soft costs” such as the sense of an overcrowded campus and increased traffic during pick-up and drop-off.

“We heard that loud and clear from families at Solana Ranch...that they don’t want the mega-size elementary school,” Schade said. “I think now we’re in a situation where it’s a balancing act, trying to accommodate residents and how we can accommodate them comfortably.”

At the board’s Oct. 10 meeting, they will also hear a recommendation from staff about a pilot transportation program for the 2020-21 school year for Pacific Highlands Ranch families assigned to schools outside of their neighborhood. The district is considering one bus route to Solana Santa Fe and one route to Carmel Creek and Solana Pacific.

The two buses would cost the district about $126,000 to $198,000 a year and they still need to consider the level of interest in order to be able to offer a successful program. A ridership survey is currently available on the school district website. If interested, take the survey at