For the Del Mar Union School District, five hours of passionate debate Wednesday night failed to build consensus among the district’s five trustees about what sort of relationship its schools should have with a nonprofit foundation dedicated raising private funds for the district.

Instead, the school board’s meeting highlighted the uncharted legal questions posed by the unusually close ties between the district and the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation.

“I think the problem that we’re having tonight is that the train is on the tracks, and we’re trying to jump on the train, change the tracks and change the train, and still try to get the train to the station,” district’s legal counsel Christina Dyer told the school board and the district’s superintendent.

In a legal opinion released last week, Dyer concluded that the district and the foundation represented “alter egos” of one another, and warned that the district practice of setting per-student fundraising goals may have violated the state constitution’s promise of free education.

Previously, district policy required each of its seven elementary schools to raise about a third of the cost of its enrichment program in art, technology, science and physical education through philanthropic donations.

However, the school board put an immediate end to the practice Wednesday night, voting unanimously to use district funds to pay the full cost of the 28 enrichment teachers, regardless of the amount of donations raised at each school.

But the trustees remained at odds on a bigger proposal, unveiled earlier this week by two board members, that sought to address concerns over equity in the use of foundation dollars and the compensation paid to its executive director.

In November, dissatisfaction with the foundation played a central role in the school board election, shepherding in a new majority that promised to overhaul its operations and its relationship with the school district.

Foundation leaders warned that Wednesday’s proposal, co-written by the school board’s new president, Annette Easton, would have essentially destroyed their organization. Last year, the foundation raised more than $1 million dollars for the district’s enrichment programs, mostly through parent donations.

“There are … elements in those proposals that would kill a districtwide foundation,” foundation Vice President Bob Gans told the school board. “I would ask you to carefully consider that, and whether it’s legally required, before you jettison a fundraising program.”

Easton and her allies, however, argued that the reforms were necessary to ensure the district’s fiscal health, warning that the district was currently on the hook for programs funded by the foundation, regardless of whether it succeeded in raising the necessary money.

“I think where we are, as a district, are trying to untangle the way we’ve gotten into this mess over the last several years,” she said.

The school board has scheduled a special meeting for next week to consider requiring the foundation to limit its overhead costs and remove the schools’ superintendent from the foundation board, among other reforms proposed by Easton and Trustee Katherine White.


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