The mailings are muted. The streets, most of them anyway, are sans campaign signs. And the residents are astoundingly un-rancorous.
Rancho Santa Fe is two weeks away from a vote that could largely resolve its biggest political battle of the last 10 years — and on this third try, if the resounding silence in the community means what many believe, a solution to the dreaded “school issue” might actually pass.
For the last decade, public education in this fantastically wealthy, semi-rural hamlet has been hampered by a malady rather unfamiliar to people who live here: Material inadequacy.
On the K-8 school district’s sole campus, there are no dedicated science or computer labs. There are no locker rooms; students change for P.E. classes standing up in restrooms. The R. Roger Rowe School’s few outdoor play areas are encumbered by 17 aging, portable classrooms. There is one playing field, for which sports teams and P.E. classes struggle to get time.
All of this on top of the fact that the crumbling campus, which has not received a major upgrade since construction in the 1950’s, is now utterly out of date. Parents and alumni harbor seemingly limitless affection for their “village school” — a mishmash of cramped class-boxes gathered on a tiny site at the west end of town — but it’s widely acknowledged that the place pales in comparison to facilities offered in neighboring districts.
Ten years of work on the problem have failed to find an improvement scheme voters can agree on.
For most of those years, the plan was to build a second school with better facilities that could handle more students. But voters twice defeated measures for new schools after owners of property near every proposed school site revolted. The 2006 effort caused many to believe that the plan to build a new school was actually a conspiracy to segregate kids who didn’t live in the area’s largest and oldest homeowners association.
Whenever “the school issue” has come up in Rancho Santa Fe, controversy — in the form of warring campaigns and consultants, sign spats and well-funded lawsuits — has followed.
“I think we’ve all felt like we’ve been stuck in a weird Pandora’s box for the last few years,” parent Scott Shepard recently told the school board. “Every way you went there was a dead-end.”
On Feb. 5, voters may approve a $34 million bond measure that would pay for a major renovation of the existing campus. The plan would remedy the glaring facilities inadequacies while ridding the school’s seven usable acres of portable classrooms. When it’s over, most of the campus would look completely different, with some two- and three-story buildings and a capacity lifted to 850 students.
The renovation is not the caliber of solution the district once swore it would achieve: A new site with gleaming facilities and plenty of space to house the district’s students into the long-term future. But this bond may actually pass.
There is no organized opposition to Proposition E. There have been no lawsuits, no outcries at school board meetings, and no threats to recall district trustees.
No one even bothered to submit an argument against the measure for the voter pamphlet.
It is unheard-of that a cast of one-time critics would show up to a school board meeting merely to wish the district good luck. And it’s spectacularly out of place that no one in Rancho Santa Fe could be bothered to give voters a reason not to spend $34 million on something.
“I’ve done a lot of races before and I’ve never seen that,” said Aimee Remanick, a political consultant with Tom Shepard’s firm who is working for the school district.
School trustees have even said publicly that this proposed renovation might be a first step to expanding onto surrounding properties — when a few years ago, the idea of expanding the existing school earned cries of “mega-campus” and overdevelopment in this wary community.
Aside from a block of voters who vote against any tax increase (estimated at 25-30 percent), no one seems to mind today.
“This is a different campaign,” said Allison Stratton, a parent who helps lead the “yes” committee. “It’s just so much less contentious this time that we’re not having to really fight anything.”
District officials take the quiet as a sign that they’re about to get their campus renovated.
“I feel like we’ll have a successful bond at the end of the day because I can’t believe there’s anybody who wouldn’t like it,” Superintendent Lindy Delaney said.
But after years of legal battles, infighting among neighbors and worsening conditions in the school, it could be that many voters simply want to see the issue go away — and they’ve figured out by now that achieving a more ambitious solution is literally impossible.
“I think they’re just delaying the inevitable,” said Dr. Martin Fallor, a Rancho Santa Fe resident who’s become known in recent years for his verbal lacerations of the school board. He believes the district will still need more land in the future. But he added, “I’m not saying I’m not going to vote for it.”
Carlie Headapohl, a school board member who provided early momentum to the idea of renovating the Rowe campus, has passionately argued that an attainable improvement beats a theoretical one.
“I think we all agree that we would love to solve all the problems at once, in one fell swoop,” Headapohl said. “There’s what we’d all like to have and then there’s the reality of what we can get and what the voters will support.”
Asked to endorse the measure, directors of the powerful Rancho Santa Fe Association acknowledged that the renovation would represent an abandonment of their long-stated desire to have the district secure new land outside of the HOA. They gave it a unanimous thumbs-up anyway.
“Enough of trying to look for the home-run, perfect, button-down solution,” Director Bob Spears said at the time.
For many, the inability of an incredibly wealthy, powerful, well-educated town to come together for the sake of its children’s education has been a black mark on Rancho Santa Fe — a “real community failure,” Spears called it.
After a decade of chasing dreams and courting controversy, it looks like Rancho Santa Fe may finally be ready to end that “failure” and compromise on a solution that is, all will admit, imperfect. But possible.
“Heck if this doesn’t pass, it’s time to move to Del Mar,” said Ranch parent Saiid Zarrabian. “Where the community actually cares about having a great school system.”