Solana Beach board considers school buses for Pacific Highlands Ranch students

The Solana Beach School District
The Solana Beach School District is trying to find ways to provide temporary transportation for Pacific Highlands Ranch families dealing with challenging school commutes.
(Karen Billing)

The Solana Beach School District continues to explore providing temporary transportation for Pacific Highlands Ranch families dealing with challenging school commutes. At the board’s Jan. 19 meeting, they revisited the options for two bus routes, one from Pacific Highlands Ranch to Solana Santa Fe School in Rancho Santa Fe and one to Carmel Creek/Solana Pacific Schools in Carmel Valley.

With the board’s 2019 decision not to build the district’s eighth school in Pacific Highlands Ranch, PHR children were assigned to schools outside of their neighborhood as the district weathered a wave of increased enrollment from the new homes. A pilot transportation program for those students had originally been pitched for the 2020-21 school year.

John Leland, the district’s chief technology officer, said the district has been unsuccessful in getting transportation quotes from companies as vendors face challenges such as staffing shortages, equipment shortages and rising fuel costs. In 2021 numbers, the two buses would cost $645 a day or $116,100 per year, which was a 17% increase over estimated 2018-19 costs.

SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said the board could revisit the topic at the March meeting, pending obtaining updated transportation company quotes. The board will also need to take into account considerations like the cost, fees passed along to families, funding sources, bus stop locations and site impacts.

Congestion in Pacific Highlands Ranch has been an issue for the last several years. The Del Mar Heights-Carmel Valley Road corridor suffers from a bottleneck from multiple schools feeding off of it. Canyon Crest Academy and Torrey Pines both begin at 8:30 a.m. Schools like Pacific Trails, Solana Ranch, Sycamore Ridge, Ashley Falls, Carmel Creek, Solana Pacific and Cathedral Catholic High School all begin at the same time or within a five to 20-minute window.

Parents have told the board it can take 40-45 minutes to go four miles, one way to drop kids off from Pacific Highlands Ranch.

The district surveyed parents in November 2022 and found 51 students would be interested in busing to Solana Santa Fe and 54 to Carmel Creek/Solana Pacific.

The families most interested resided in the Vista Santa Fe Highlands collection, where 29 students requested transportation to Solana Santa Fe.

SBSD Trustee Julie Union went out last week to get a feel for the “PHR experience”, driving to the top of Aurora Summit Trail to map out the morning routes to Solana Santa Fe, Carmel Creek and Solana Pacific, finding it would take 11-12 minutes to get to each school using her Apple app. She found that across the district, commute times were similar for Morgan Run to Skyline in Solana Beach or from the Crosby development to Solana Santa Fe.

“Being in the car is not easy and I just want to make sure when we’re making these decisions that we’re really thinking about parity across our district and really crunching the numbers,” Union said. “This is a big fiduciary cost that we could have.”

SBSD President Debra Schade said she was interested in buses as one way of getting cars off the road, others being encouraging ride-sharing and biking or walking to school.

Schade said there are a lot of pending unknowns but the majority of the board would be willing to help families by offering buses for a period of time as long as they could get a strong, reliable commitment from a transportation company and if there was funding that made it an affordable option for the district.

The Solana Beach School District is seeing declining enrollment across the district. Brentlinger said the district has committed to look at the housing developments in Pacific Highlands Ranch for potential school re-assignments for the 2024-25 school year.