Solana Beach residents oppose district office building on Earl Warren field

The current field space at Earl Warren campus that the district is considering for a new district office.
(Karen Billing)

The San Dieguito Union High School District board directed staff to explore a few different options before moving forward on an initial architecture and engineering contract for a new office building on the empty lower field at Earl Warren Middle School in Solana Beach.

San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) board member Joyce Dalessandro questioned whether the district had pursued all other alternatives, such as purchasing another building to house their district office. While a more centrally located office than their building in Encinitas would be more convenient, she said the district should do its due diligence before taking the space at Earl Warren.

“I think green space is really important,” Dalessandro said. “We have green space at all of our schools and that is not really the case at Earl Warren.”

At the Feb. 27 meeting, the board was met with opposition to the proposed district office from members of the Solana Beach community, who presented a petition with 459 signatures against the office location. A group of residents spoke out against putting a building on the open field when field space for sports leagues is at a premium—as the city lacks parks, residents said they are dependent on its local schools for fields.

“We need fields,” said Jeff Lyle, president of the Solana Beach Soccer Club. “I’m here as a big proponent of fields for the kids after school to play on and have fun, whether it’s organized sports or even disorganized sports.”

Lyle spoke about the challenges in finding field space and practice time for soccer teams in the league. Patrick Johnson, president of the Solana Beach Little League and Greg Petrie, a coach in the Del Mar Little League shared that they have the same problem finding places to play in the area.

“In an era of growing inactivity, fields matter. In an era of polarization, community matters. In an era of ever-growing density, open space matters,” Petrie said. Petrie, a Del Mar resident, noted in his community the concerns about the Del Mar Heights School rebuild are centered on how much field space will be left after the new campus is built. “It’s the same fight. The community really supports keeping open space for active kids,” Petrie said. “It matters. Putting an office building there does not matter.”

Opponents also said that the project was fiscally irresponsible, that the district has not considered traffic impacts in the area and accused the district of being “deceitful” in its process by not engaging with the Solana Beach community.

Joseph Lim, community development director for the city of Solana Beach, said he was surprised to find out through the newspaper that the project was being discussed that night. Three Solana Beach City Council members were in attendance at the meeting and Lim stated the city’s willingness to work with the district on the project but noted they will need to comply with the city’s zoning and land use provisions, which includes permits that were not included in last year’s feasibility study.

“At the end of the day this is vanity project that takes away play fields from students and the community and has nothing to do with serving students,” said resident Shannon Kearns.

The field space proposed for the new office building is currently vacant and is not used by Earl Warren students or by local sports leagues. Prior to the construction of the new Earl Warren campus in 2015, it was used for sports such as baseball and soccer. The land served as an interim campus for Earl Warren and then neighboring Skyline School until 2018.

Many parents said that the current field space at Earl Warren is the smallest in the district, however, SDUHSD President Beth Hergesheimer pointed out that Earl Warren also has the smallest student population.

“In regard to curricular needs for the size of the school, the upper field and track more than meets that need, along with the playground,” said SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley, recognizing that that doesn’t discount the community wanting more for physical education and after-school community sports.

SDUHSD board member Kristin Gibson said she believes the new district office is needed and she was in favor of going forward with the $352,412 contract with Ruhnau Clarke Architects for initial architectural and engineering services.

“I do understand that there is a need for outdoor space but we also have an obligation to discuss the needs of the district,” said Gibson noting that the current office building is not a “functional or purposeful workspace” and there is a need for a more central office location as the district is twice as big and the population has moved geographically to the south. “It may only be five miles but that five miles takes an hour often.”

“Our students during our school day do not need another field. There is no need for that,” said Gibson, speaking over jeers from the audience. “The sad truth is that providing green space for the community isn’t the school district’s job. It is the job of the cities of San Diego, Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar and I’m sorry if they haven’t prioritized it. But I can’t justify spending money for a sports complex or any other type of facility that our students don’t need now.”

Many parents challenged the district on the funding for the office building project, which comes with about a $20.8 million price tag.
Hergesheimer stated that her main consideration with the new district office has always been whether they can do it without taking money from the general fund.

An appraisal of the Encinitas building last year showed that it could sell in its current state for about $5 million but rather than sell it, the district intends to use it as leverage after modernizing it to attract rental office tenants. The approximate investment in the building in order for it to generate lease revenue would be about $2 million to $5 million.

“The district has never proposed using Prop AA funding for this project,” Haley said.

During the feasibility study last fall, the district had identified just $1 million available in capital funding, however, the funding has since changed as the district was recently informed by the state that will be getting $50 million in reimbursement dollars for Pacific Trails Middle School’s initial construction back in 2015. The district has already received about $15 million of the state funding which Director of Maintenance and Operations John Addleman said is enough to possibly move forward with the architectural services for the new district office as well as go toward further modernization at Oak Crest Middle School and San Dieguito.

SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir, who was in favor of saving the space at Earl Warren for the community, stressed that any additional facilities money should go toward students first: “We have so many other things to take care of for our kids,” she said.

The district has identified $134 million in potential facilities needs across the district, unrelated to Prop AA projects. Of the $449 million Prop AA bond, there is $84 million left to be bonded against, drawing out to 2035. Forty-eight of the 74 identified AA projects have been completed.

As for the need for a new district office, Haley said the district has outgrown its current office building and they are not able to house all of their office staff in one place at the same time. Facilities, transportation and nutrition services are spread out off-site at district property on Vulcan Avenue and on the San Dieguito Academy High School campus.

Built in 1979 as a medical office building, Haley said the Encinitas office also does not offer the needed collaboration spaces for staff and the board meeting room and parking lot are both undersized. Haley said that very few dollars have gone toward updating the facility over the years.

“The status quo doesn’t hold, we’re going to have to do something with this building,” Haley said.

At the meeting, the board approved spending $257,673 for architectural/engineering services for the beginning of the modernization of the Encinitas building, with a concentration on the improvements necessary to promote greater energy efficiency and building code compliance. Items include roofing, heating ventilation and air conditioning, and addressing “significant” Americans with Disabilities Act issues related to the elevator and stairways.

“This building can create an unsafe work environment for many of the employees,” said SDUHSD Clerk Melisse Mossy. “We do want our employees to feel valued, we do want them to have a workspace that’s comparable to the great improvements that we’re doing other places. We don’t want them to feel unheard or uncared for.”

During public comment, Solana Beach resident Sean Pope suggested that rather than build a new office building, it could be more fiscally responsible for the district to partner with the public to build a sports facility on the site that could generate revenue. He spoke about how he raised over $100,000 to enhance the Snack Shack on the Solana Vista School campus in partnership with the Solana Beach School District.

In 2016, the district did develop a sports complex with its La Costa Valley site in Carlsbad using Prop AA funds. Located on 28 acres on Calle Barcelona, the site is home to two baseball fields, a softball field and three soccer and lacrosse fields. The fields serve the district’s athletic program needs and are rented out to community sports leagues.

The district had hoped to partner with the City of Carlsbad to maintain the fields, however, the district is now responsible for maintenance alone at a “significant” financial impact to the district.

Haley said he understands the sentiment for more open space and fields as he has participated in sports his whole life and is an avid biker and runner. He said he is proud of how the city of San Diego has planned for parks, trails and open space and would love to see Solana Beach do long-term planning for more parks and facilities for kids and families.