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Most school districts in San Diego County – and throughout the state – struggle with declining enrollment.

San Marcos Unified School District is one of only a few districts locally that is growing – and at a rapid pace. The district’s boundaries include the city of San Marcos, parts of eastern Carlsbad, a bit of Escondido, a sliver of Vista and parts of unincorporated county land.

The Learning Curve

The city of San Marcos’ population more than doubled between 1990 and 2010, said city spokeswoman Sarah Macdonald in an email. The city continues to develop new housing and estimates that since 2010, the population has grown another 10 percent. In just the first half of 2017, the city issued more than 500 building permits.

That means lots of new students for San Marcos Unified, and it has meant that since the 1990s, the district has constantly had to find and create space for its growing student body.

In the 1996-97 school year, the district had a K-12 enrollment of more than 11,300. The final enrollment for the 2015-2016 year was more than 20,800.

San Marcos Superintendent Melissa Hunt has worked for the district in various capacities since 2001. When she started, the district had one high school and two middle schools. Now it has two high schools, three middle schools and a new K-8 school.

“It’s a happy situation to be in because more districts are declining in enrollment,” Hunt said. “Growth has its own set of challenges, but declining enrollment is very hard on a community.”

There are four ways that San Marcos Unified has been accommodating its growth over the past two decades, said Mark Schiel, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services.

The district can use portable classrooms. It also looks for space that wasn’t being used as classrooms, but could potentially be converted into classrooms, like collaboration spaces.

The district also has been renovating several of its schools, which often includes increasing a school’s capacity.

Finally, the district has built new schools.

Since the 1996-97 school year, 13 of the 18 schools in district have either been newly constructed or renovated, Schiel said.

Making more space for students comes with its own challenges, though, especially when it comes to finding land and money.

“The school district has been building schools as fast as we can to keep up with the growth,” said San Marcos Unified School Board Trustee Randy Walton. “It is enormously difficult for public school districts to find land and build schools, and we’re feverishly in that process right now.”

Schiel said the district is constantly doing intense analysis, working with developers and the city to see when permits are issued and making population projects based on new residential developments to assess the need for new facilities. At the same time, the district has to be careful not to pull the trigger on new schools pre-emptively, because sometimes developments are uncertain, he said.

“We’re trying to be proactive, but because of how the development world works, we have to be a little bit reactive,” Schiel said. “We don’t want to have a school built and then sit empty.”

For example, a more than 2,000-home proposed project in northeastern San Diego County, Newland Sierra, would significantly impact the district. Roughly half of those homes fall within San Marcos Unified’s boundaries, but the project is still under review by the county. Sometimes even after a city or county has greenlit a project, it will get hung up by financial issues.

There’s a lot of uncertainty.

The city and district recently established a Joint Task Force on School Development “to identify solutions to meet school development needs in our growing community,” Macdonald said in an email.

The task force meets monthly to discuss things like population growth projections, available land and potential ways the district and city can work together.

“When you have a problem, you have to identify what it is and the resources available to solve them,” said Victor Graham, a San Marcos school board trustee. “There’s a lot of overlap between the city and the district, so that’s why I thought the task force would be helpful.”

A San Marcos Elementary School renovation completed in 2010, for example, included a public park that both residents in the neighborhood and the school could use. Through a joint-use agreement, the city and district share the cost and the use, saving both sides money. Residents mostly use the facilities on weekends, when kids aren’t in school, so the timing worked out, Graham said.

Funding renovations and new construction is also a challenge, said Walton.

Schools can use some fees from developers or through Mello-Roos, which allows local agencies to set up special tax districts to help pay for infrastructure and public services, like schools. District voters also approved bond funds for facilities  in 2010. The district also has received some money from the state in the past for facilities, and is slated to receive money from Proposition 51, a $9 billion bond measure for school construction projects across California that passed in November, Schiel said.

San Marcos Unified has had to adjust the boundaries within the district a few times in the past couple of decades, to help some of the schools that are at or over capacity, to shift some of those students to other schools. The district will be undergoing that process again this year.

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• California has filed suit against Trump on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (POLITICO)

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• The number of international students studying at U.S. high schools more than doubled between 2004 and 2016. (Wall Street Journal)

• Data from the U.S. Department of Education suggests that the teacher shortage has been overblown. (National Council on Teacher Quality)

• The reopening of schools in Houston represents hope for recovery in a city where thousands of homes remain uninhabitable from Hurricane Harvey. Here are a few alarming stats that help us put together the picture of how much damage Hurricanes Irma and Harvey have done to students. (Washington Post)

• Many teachers are grappling with how to teach students born after Sept. 11 about the attacks and their aftermath. (NPR)

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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