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Monday, Aug. 13, 2007 | Some weeks ago I wrote about the poor, deprived public school children of Rancho Santa Fe, who, despite their parents’ conspicuously lofty means and high average level of education, go to learn on a campus that is, even by middle-class standards, crappy. Yeah, they get bread and water and textbooks, but not locker rooms or science labs or technology centers or lots of playground space — as do students in much less-wealthy areas.

This is because, despite their allegedly deep concern for education, voters in San Diego’s wealthiest ZIP code have not been able to agree on any crucial details for a long-envisioned second campus. Or even whether one is necessary.

All of the district’s 790 K-8 students attend the aged, tiny R. Roger Rowe School, where the millions parents contribute for cutting-edge teachers are spent between walls built when your average computer filled an entire room. Many residents probably have front yards larger than the school’s playing field, especially after it was constricted in recent years with numerous portable classrooms.

Though vacant land is excruciatingly difficult to find in Ranch Santa Fe, there was one last, best locale for the school district’s expansion dreams: a flat, 28-acre property at the intersection of Via De La Valle and Calzada Del Bosque that the state Department of Education identified years ago as the best of many sites considered. Getting 55 percent of voters to agree to spend $58 million to build a school there was going to be hard enough — what with all the partisan rancor, lawsuits and PR campaigns that killed every new school bond in the past. Yet given even those impediments, the district had a fair chance of passing a bond next year — partly because the land it wants, while providing plenty of space for future growth, was also for sale.

The Calzada site cozies up to a vital intersection at the entrance to the community, overseen by the Rancho Santa Fe Covenant’s only stoplight. Its grassy acres currently languish in morbid hues; the ancient palms rise scraggly and tired. A once-elegant, Spanish-revival main house — excuse me, mansion — sits grimly boarded up, hedged by overgrown weeds, rusty gates and the other blemishes that come with decades of neglect. The place is an eyesore. Residents want it improved.

And they’ll get that — though a school is less likely.

Last week, well-known horse breeder Larry Mabee announced that those flat 28 acres on Via De La Valle now belong to him. Mabee’s parents, John and Betty, are familiar figures to anyone who knows anything about California thoroughbred racing, having produced stakes champions that have won millions of dollars.

The Mabee’s Golden Eagle Farm is now located in Ramona, though Larry owns four houses in Rancho Santa Fe. The purchase begins a planned move of the entire operation to the Ranch, where the now-crumbling property will become both an elegant home for Larry and a top-notch facility for his most prized horses.

Mabee, a Ranch resident since the early 1990s, has been around for the school district’s decade of site-search travails. He saw voters reject two new-school bonds; he knew that the district wanted those 28 acres for a second site. He bought them anyway. (Not, in case you were wondering, to flip it to the school district when and if it passes a bond.)

“I would say it’s a dead issue, currently,” the rather jovial Mabee said of the school possibility. “It’s not for sale.”

School officials were, to put it mildly, surprised that a Rancho Santa Fe luminary would throw himself in front of the district’s months-ago-departed bond train. And — though some seemed to try to hide it at first with stoic assurances that the effort would press on regardless — much of the school board seemed, well, defeated at a recent meeting.

“I recognize and respect your right to purchase any property you want,” board President Richard Burge told Larry Mabee. “But I am disappointed that you did not respect the position of this school board and our very public interest in this site as a solution to the school overcrowding challenge. Your purchase of this property … creates a major setback for education in our community.”

The question is, will overcoming that setback involve the use of eminent domain? Though the board hasn’t signed off on a 2008 bond yet, it appears to have reached an understanding with Mabee that the only way it’ll get that property is through successful condemnation proceedings. Before that, though, it would have to pass a bond.

“Honestly I don’t think the school district is going to have the community’s support to do what they need to do after it comes out what I’m going to do there,” Mabee told me. “And that’s every person that I’ve talked to in the last several weeks has made the same comment.”

Mabee makes a difficult — but inescapable — point. Merely mentioning the phrase “eminent domain” turns the stomachs of the conservative voters here, and one survey showed a rapid fleeing of support for any school bond that involves condemning private property.

Another aspect of the recent sale might indicate that, despite recent surveys to the contrary, public sentiment is already stacked against a Calzada school: That news of Mabee’s purchase took so long to reach administrators.

Mabee says his interest in the site started July 3. Owners of homes near it said they heard solid information on Mabee’s plans in mid-July. By the time escrow closed on the sale July 31, rumors had been well-circulated throughout the community (I heard them from several diverse sources.)

Mabee didn’t exactly try to keep his plans a secret. “I just couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve had discussions with as of late. And every single one of them has been just so excited,” he explained.

But no one at the school district heard about Mabee’s plans until a rumor arrived one or two business days before the sale went through. “I would have preferred a courtesy call, but obviously that didn’t happen,” the district’s clearly miffed superintendent, Lindy Delaney, told me after she heard.

Silence that choosy has to mean something. Either ears of the community weren’t concerned enough about the school idea to speak up, or Mabee and his friends tried to keep the district out of the loop in case public sentiment backed it.

Because a lot of people not far from the school community knew about Mabee’s plans, I have to assume that no one told the district because getting a second school didn’t really concern them. The school board apparently shares some of that fear: As of Aug. 9, all work on the Calzada bond is on hold until the board gets back a survey from voters telling it what to do next.

Mabee said his friends and associates “all made the comment that the school board needs to look at Plan B” — a reference to the also-lambasted overcrowding solution that would build-up (or build-out) the current, 9-acre campus, rather than create a new one. One woman, curious about expanding the existing school, asked the board if it the space from three residential properties behind the Rowe school would help the overcrowding situation.

Well, it doesn’t matter because those properties definitely are not for sale, the board president responded.

“But his property isn’t for sale either!” the woman laughed, pointing at Mabee.

“But it was last week!” board member Jim Depolo shot back, only partially hiding his despondence.

It appears that once again in Rancho Santa Fe, many options for solving the school’s overcrowding are on the table — and none of them look particularly good.

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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