San Dieguito district to change foundations’ role in facilities rentals

The exterior of the San Dieguito Union High School District office in Encinitas.
The exterior of the San Dieguito Union High School District office in Encinitas.
(Karen Billing)

The San Dieguito Union High School District is looking to make a change in how it handles the rental of school facilities.

Currently, San Dieguito allows its four high school foundations to re-rent district property. In an effort to maximize the district’s ability to generate funds to improve its buildings and minimize potential liability from third-party use, the district would like to discontinue this practice.

The district has proposed a one-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) in order to make the transition from the foundations renting district facilities to the district making them available directly to the community. As San Dieguito board President Rimga Viskanta explained it: Currently the site foundations act as landlord and the ticket office; what changes is district takes back that landlord role while the foundation remains the ticket office.

There will be no change to the practice for the upcoming school year— to ensure that student programs are not impacted, the intent of the MOU is for the district and foundations to work together over the coming year toward the district taking over facility rentals in fall 2024-25.

While the MOU was on the agenda for approval at the May 17 meeting, the board voted 3-2 to continue the decision to June. Both Trustees Michael Allman and Phan Anderson were prepared to approve the agreement that night. Allman said that they have been talking with the foundations about this issue for over two years and they can’t seem to make progress— he didn’t want to “kick the can” down the road any further.

“Only the district controls our facilities,” Allman said. “These assets belong to the district and the public, that’s it.”

No foundation representatives were at the meeting to provide input that night. According to Joanne Couvrette, executive director of the Canyon Crest Academy Foundation, the foundations were not involved in the preparation of the MOU.

Last summer the board recommended that staff collaborate with foundations and site principals over the board’s policies on school-connected organizations. A meeting was set for May 12 and only Couvrette and outgoing San Dieguito High School Academy Foundation Executive Director Leslie Saldana were in attendance with three principals and three board presidents —no one was there from the La Costa Canyon Foundation and the Torrey Pines Foundation does not currently have an executive director.

They were not able to see the MOU in advance.

Per the language of the MOU: “The district recognizes that re-renting or subleasing district facilities is a significant revenue stream for the foundations and immediate termination of the practice could have a catastrophic impact on district programs.”

“No one should sign a document that promises catastrophe to students,” Couvrette said. “I think that the document needs to get thrown away and start over.”

In a letter to the board, SDA Foundation President John Corcoran said that he understands that the district would like to change facilities rentals but the way the district is going about it is “not acceptable.”

“(Associate Superintendent) Douglas has promised that any funding shortfalls that occur due to this MOU will be ‘covered by the district’ and that together the district and foundation will work together over the next year to make sure they understand the situation. None of this is documented or part of the MOU,” wrote Corcoran. “Given our history I am not certain that the district can work with the foundations, and I do not believe that they are currently capable of managing the facilities as will be required.”

The foundations stepped in to help with facilities rentals when the district asked for help back in 2016. Prior to the foundations’ management hardly anybody used San Dieguito facilities as there was no structure in place, Couvrette said. All four school foundations act as managers of district real estate and have been able to make facilities rentals successful through board policy, with revenue coming in for facilities and students.

Couvrette said the year before foundations took over facilities rentals the district made $108,000 in revenue from all 10 schools. Just at CCA in one year they now make $500,000 to $600,000 a year. With those funds, she said they have upgraded the theater’s sound system, purchased new computers, replaced carpeting, remodeled the robotics room and are about to take on a $1 million project to replace the furniture in every single classroom at CCA.

Clubs and sports teams also use facilities rentals to pay for their programs. At SDA, a significant portion of sports team revenue is generated from off-season events, helping to reduce the voluntary ask of parents. At the meeting, students from the Canyon Crest Academy speech and debate team spoke out against the current form of the MOU—funds raised from their summer camps are vital to supporting their season.

“Make sure language in the MOU allows us to continue to run our summer camps without crippling facilities fees,” said sophomore Michi Synn. “Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in debate, it’s that words matter.”

Viskanta said this would be a very different discussion if the district received more state funding—she said the board is grateful to their foundations for making up the difference. Her hope is that the relationship between the district and the foundations continues and grows stronger and that everyone can get on the same page by formalizing processes over the next year: “Nothing is meant to happen right away,” Viskanta said.

She acknowledged the fears she heard about unintentional consequences of harming student activities: “The last thing we would want is to hurt our student groups.”

“There is no intention to change board policy, which authorizes the use of school facilities without charge to school-related organizations whose activities are directly related to or for the benefit of district schools,” Viskanta said.

Viskanta explained that it is important that the district manage the process of facility rentals to ensure an understanding of what groups are using their facilities and that those groups maintain the proper levels of insurance. If a private, non-student group entity is using their public facilities, she said the district is obliged to collect the facility rental fees charged in order to cover the costs of maintenance and our janitorial staff: “ This accounting needs to happen through the district’s accounting system.”

During public comment, the board heard from some parents who were concerned that the foundations were not in compliance with the Civic Center Act and were “profiting” from the use of public assets. In looking to get the MOU approved that night, Allman had proposed scratching the whole document save for one sentence: That foundations may not enter into any new agreements to rent or sub-lease district facilities to third parties. He did not gain majority support for his motion.

As Vice President Jane Lea Smith said, the MOU is meant to be a documentation of an agreement but judging from the reaction of the community, it is missing the “understanding” piece. She was in support of waiting another month rather than pushing ahead and causing further division.

Clerk Katrina Young said the foundations are looking for reassurances and if those reassurances lead to compliance, it’s worth waiting to make sure the MOU is right. She heard Allman’s frustrations that it has been two years of conversations but noted this process has been followed for over a decade and everyone needs to be on board as they make the transition.

“This is a chance to collaborate, this is a chance to build community and it just requires a little bit of patience,” Young said. “We owe it to everyone, especially our students, to make sure this is a seamless transition.”