While other school districts in North County cannot find the money to build new schools and try to make do with the overcrowded ones they have, Poway Unified opens four new schools today.
Poway Superintendent Robert Reeves attributes his district's good fortune to planning by his staff that quickly pushed through an application to the state.
"We're kind of a high risk, high roll district. We didn't back off when everyone else got timid," Reeves said, pointing out that the district was willing to take on expenses such as architect's fees even without assurances that the state would actually fund the construction of the schools. With that, Poway was able to give the state the information needed to move on the application.
The payoff came in the swift approval of state money.
"They did take a risk because they went out on a limb that we may not have been able to pay them back," said R.L. Porter, regional supervisor for the office of local assistance, which processes school building fund applications. "Probably 95% of the school districts couldn't take those risks because they simply don't have any spare funds to use."
Porter said Poway received its money in about two years, while other districts usually take three to four years.
Even so, delays in construction had Poway Unified scrambling as late as last week to finish construction of the three elementary schools and a middle school.
"It's going to be done because there's no choice," said Michael Fickel, principal at the new Deer Canyon Elementary school.
Turtleback, Morning Creek and Deer Canyon elementary schools and Bernardo Heights middle school are four of the eight schools in San Diego County that are opening their doors for the first time this September, according to the county office of education. The four will house close to 3,700 students.
Yet another Poway Unified school, Rancho Bernardo High School, is slated to open in December.
Construction crews at Deer Canyon Elementary started laying the asphalt for the parking lots and playgrounds only last Wednesday and were expected to continue until Sunday.
Already, however, vandals have left their mark. The cream-colored front wall of Deer Canyon was slated to get a fresh coat of paint before school began to cover up the bright-red graffiti sprayed on its outside walls, the sign of youngsters "marking their territory," a school official said. Vandals also have broken windows and uprooted plants.
"There's been a lot of vandalism and a lot of graffiti," said Cesar Chavez, senior custodian at Deer Canyon Elementary. "I'm afraid that that's something that I'll have to deal with routinely."
Signs of delays in construction litter the school. A lawn originally slated for play by the time school opened is still just mounds of dirt. School officials hope to have it ready by December.
"It's going to be pretty touch and go, right up to the bell," Chavez said as he stood in the brand new gymnasium that was cluttered with unassembled desks, chairs and tables.
Chores such as erecting a sign displaying the name of the school, planting the dozen or so potted trees that sat on the school's lawn and installing the stove for the school's cafeteria are among the dozens of unfinished last-minute items.
Parents who have seen the new facilities say the two main advantages are having more space and being within walking distance of the school.
"It's modern-looking, it's got all the trendy colors, and it's going to have a lot of space, which will be nice," said Bess Sturgeon, whose 9-year-old son is starting the fourth-grade at Deer Canyon and had been attending Sundance Elementary.
"Sundance was extremely overcrowded. Half the playground was filled up with portable buildings which limited space," Sturgeon said.
Sturgeon was unbothered by the continuing construction.
"It's like moving into a new house," Sturgeon said. "You're going to have your knocks for a while, and it'll take probably the first year before you get all the knocks out."
The construction crews and teachers expected to work through the weekend to create a suitable place to learn.
Despite the delays in construction and the vandalism, officials are proud of their new schools, pointing to various innovations that equip the school for the future.
The three elementary schools, which are identical in construction and design, include a full-sized gymnasium with basketball and volleyball courts carpeted in an eye-catching gray, black and red pattern.
"Evidently, they found this to be a sound way to build a basketball court without having to build expensive wooden floors," Fickel said. "Basketball sounds different, but it doesn't play differently.
"We are also being prepared for being totally on the district network for IBM computers distributed to every classroom as work stations and for teachers," Fickel said.
Although the schools don't have the computers yet, they are ready for when they do get them.
"What we've done in the new schools is that we have simply dropped wires and conduit all the way through," said Susan Van Zant, principal at Morning Creek Elementary. "We don't know what we're going to use those for, but technology is changing so quickly, and now we're prepared for what's to come."
Poway Unified's geographic size and the type of developments being built there give the district an edge in building new campuses, since one of the main hurdles in building a school is finding an appropriate site.
"Poway was growing with developers who were building enough homes and on enough acreage that as we worked with
those developers and the planners we were able to determine early on that there would be X number of students coming from a particular development six to 10 years down the road," said Alicia Kroese, director of planning for Poway Unified.
The district was able to negotiate with developers and landowners for new school sites before those schools became necessary, Kroese said.
Other cities, such as Escondido and Vista, have experienced growth in the number of young families living in the central parts of their cities where school sites are not readily available.
Poway's larger developments--as many as 8,000 units in one tract--gave the district a better negotiating stance when discussing potential school sites with builders, said Gene Hartline, assistant superintendent of business services at Escondido Union.
"The Poway district is geographically about twice as large as we are," agreed Ron Riedberger, assistant superintendent at Vista Unified, where overcrowded schools forced the district to put its elementary and middle schools on a year-round calendar last July. "It's really a difficult thing to come up with school sites that are going to satisfy our needs."
The history of Poway's growth also has played a role, Hartline said.
"Poway has been experiencing continued growth for an extended period of time," he said. As a result, the Poway district was able to show its added need for state funds far in advance of districts that grew more recently.
But credit also must go to Poway's staff, Hartline said.
"They are probably one of a dozen districts in the state that are extremely aggressive and have worked the state program for many years," Hartline said. "They have an advantage as far as staffing expertise, those people who are thoroughly familiar with the program and how to move your project through the process."
Hartline said that other districts might not be willing or able to take the risks in applying for state funds that Poway Unified has because of both a lack of funds and a lack of expertise to handle the state application process.
Hartline added that the complicated state application process discourages many school districts from even trying to get money from the state.
"Other districts are intimidated by (the state system)," Hartline said. "They are at times unsure that they qualify and other school boards, if they have the local wherewithal financially, choose to stay out of the state program because of its complexity and its rigidity of what you can build and where you can build it." "Many school districts had a mind-set that they wanted to avoid going to the state at all costs because its very complicated with hurdles upon hurdles," said Kroese of the Poway district. "Our mind set was that we needed the new schools at all costs."
But both Kroese and Poway Unified superintendent Reeves said that further funding from the state for new schools might be even harder to come by because of a new law that gives funding preferences to districts that have gone to year-round calendars.
"We are strongly opposed to instituting a multitrack year-round calendar," Reeves said.
Multitrack year-round education, which rotates the students being in school and on vacation throughout the year, allows a school to accommodate more students on the same site. However, it limits the number of days that a child can be in school, Reeves said, and the trend in schools across the nation has been toward increasing the number of days in a school year.
For example, the state requires the school year to be 180 days long. There are 245 available days for school after weekends and holidays are excluded. Vista Unified, which recently put all of its elementary and middle schools on a three-track year-round schedule, is operating on only 163 days of school and has been forced to lengthen the school day to accommodate state regulations.
Even without state aid to build schools, however, Reeves said that the district will take in enough funds through developer's fees and Mello-Roos districts to pay for about eight more schools if the enrollment develops.
Mello-Roos districts are assessments made by school districts on developers of new homes to pay for construction of schools that will be needed to serve the families moving into the development.
The Poway Unified district, however, is projected to need 12 more schools by the end of the decade at an estimated cost of $284 million in order to handle the 10,000 students that they expect will flood the district during that time.
The schools that open today are already at or near capacity, school officials said, with Bernardo Heights opening with 1,600 students, 100 students more than its capacity. The elementary schools, which are designed to house 700 students each, all are slightly below their capacity but are expected to fill up within three years.