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Monday, June 18, 2007 | The very rich, to paraphrase Fitzgerald’s famous line, are different from you and me: There is the surety money brings. And when they don’t want something, the truly affluent can pay to make it go away.

This partially explains why, in the last six years, Rancho Santa Fe voters have defeated two bonds for a new school — and why many who fully support an upcoming third attempt aren’t letting themselves get too excited.

It should seem absurd that in The Ranch, by far San Diego’s priciest swath of red-tile roofs and serpentine driveways, middle school students arrive for class in a gleaming parade of foreign automobiles and yet dress for P.E. in a cramped, seat-less bathroom. That the sons and daughters of high-tech executives and engineers have no dedicated technology lab. That the children of elite professional athletes share only a single grassy playing field, for which numerous ages, classes and teams compete for time.

It should seem absurd that every child in the Rancho Santa Fe School District studies on a 9-acre kernel of land packed with 1950’s-era brick-and-stucco classrooms and portable boxes, with no locker rooms or full-on science labs or adequate play space. *

But this is Rancho Santa Fe, where the normal dynamics of collective action are forever mired in a tempest of history, ego and dollars. Not only does any bond risk irking super-NIMBYs who might sue and hire political consultants to help defeat it (as University of California Regent and RSF homeowner Gerry Parsky did with the district’s 2006 effort), but action also requires community approval of a vision for future change in a place where many voters are quite happy with things staying the same.

Residents of Rancho Santa Fe adore their “village school,” which helps buttress the rural mythology of the place and keeps all students, grades kindergarten through eight, on the same campus. Building a second facility — long considered the surest (if not the least expensive) way to relieve long-term overcrowding on the R. Rodger Rowe campus — would sever that beloved tradition in the eyes of many. It would also force the immensely difficult question of what kind of school to build. Residents shot down a 2006 proposition for a new K-6 elementary school partly out of suspicion that it was a veiled attempt for residents of one homeowners association to segregate their children from ones who sleep behind different gates.

In the aftermath of that marginal defeat (the bond earned 51 percent approval, just short of the needed 55 percent), a new middle school for all district students was seemingly settled on as a community-unifying solution. But now that it may become a reality, one can see the fantasy involved in believing any solution could truly unify this community.

School board members who, running for a seat only nine months ago, swore they’d support a new middle school bond are now fraught with worry over the potential cost ($60 million for land and school), the grade split (fifth grade would join the older kids) and passing the thing (their neighbors aren’t stoked).

Superintendent Lindy Delaney, gun-shy from a previous failed attempt and still hoping to build consensus around a substantial solution, has commissioned survey after community survey, hoping to find that public opinion is behind the middle school plan. In those results, it is. But ominous new talk among school board members about “Plan B” — what to do if a third new school bond fails — betrays their quiet fear that no more voters actually support this new plan than supported the last one.

“Is there any bond in this community that will pass?” school board member Jim Depolo recently wondered aloud. If he means a bond to purchase additional land and build a new school, maybe not. As all-consuming as the furor was over the last effort, the next one could be an even harder sell.

For one thing, the Rowe campus isn’t as overcrowded as it used to be. There are now 800 students in a school built for 700, not 847 as there were in 2003. Enrollment is dropping, not skyrocketing, likely because of stratospheric property values and great schools in cheaper nearby neighborhoods. And the price tag has shot up from $45 million for an elementary school on seven acres to $60 million for a middle school on 28 acres. As with anywhere else, in Rancho Santa Fe — where most residents do not have kids, and where many attend private schools — the sell only gets harder when the price goes up.

“To many parents it feels like we have a small, surgical problem and we’re trying to solve it with a howitzer,” said Saiid Zarrabian, a district parent critical of the latest bond plan. He and others want to see the current campus renovated with two-story buildings and underground parking, changes they say would free up enough space to make the Rowe campus comfortable into the future. (It would also forestall the possibility of a school being built near his house.)

But Zarrabian’s idea too has been considered, discussed, criticized by a small group, and — for the moment — dropped, something one can say about pretty much any potential solution to the district’s overcrowding problem. If a plan would spend money to fix it, someone has stridently opposed it — which, here, means they probably threatened to sue.

“It’s ridiculous that we can’t spend five times the amount of a house to educate our children,” Rick Barrera, an involved local parent, said at a recent school board meeting. He’s got a point, but that seems to be the irony Rancho Santa Fe is stuck with: So much money, and so little agreement on how to spend it.

* Not that the pampered whippersnappers need our pity. Back to story

Ian S. Port is Assistant Editor of the Rancho Santa Fe Review, Carmel Valley News and Del Mar Village Voice. Contact him at iansmithport@gmail.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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