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Laguna Beach to continue studying annexation of El Morro Elementary School property from county

El Morro Elementary School
An El Morro Elementary School teacher talks to students on the campus, which is on unincorporated county land a half-mile north of the Laguna Beach border. The city is investigating opportunities to annex the land.
(File Photo)

El Morro Elementary School might officially become part of the community it serves.

The Laguna Beach City Council unanimously directed City Manager John Pietig on Tuesday night to continue investigating opportunities to annex the land under El Morro Elementary and between the school and the city’s northern border. The school property, at 8681 N. Coast Hwy., is on unincorporated county land a half-mile north of the city border adjacent to state parkland.

For the record:

12:04 PM, Oct. 31, 2019City Manager John Pietig was originally quoted in this article as saying about the possible annexation of the El Morro Elementary School property, “I agree ... that’s a worthy investment to protect our children and our citizens.” Though the article included his concern that annexation may not be necessary if the city can redirect 911 calls without it, it should have clarified that his quote was expressing support for annexation provided it is necessary for redirecting 911 calls.

El Morro, which opened in 1953, is one of two elementary schools in the Laguna Beach Unified School District. It serves kindergarten through fifth grade.

The school is part of the Laguna Beach Unified School District, but it presides on unincorporated county land. Parents raised concerns about safety at a PTA meeting in September.

“I think the benefits of annexation exist ... the idea of having certainty that the city will always be responsible for it, as opposed to an agreement,” said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow. “I think one speaker said, ‘We don’t know what future council, staff, etc., will do.’ I think that certainty is worth looking into.”

“It’s symbolic,” Councilwoman Toni Iseman added.

The council also approved a resolution acknowledging authorization from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for Laguna Beach to provide police services to El Morro Elementary (the two agencies had been providing it jointly) and to enter an agreement with the school district to split the cost of an additional school resource officer.

Currently, one resource officer serves all four Laguna Beach Unified schools. The city currently pays all but $25,000 of the program’s cost, which exceeds $220,000 annually.

Iseman said she wanted the second officer to have more time allocated to El Morro due to its surroundings.

Dicterow requested that city staff explore the possibility of having a dedicated school resource officer for each campus, saying police presence provides a visible deterrent to wrongdoing.

The council also requested a dedicated phone number for community members to connect directly with Laguna Beach Police Department dispatch while staff looks into ways to direct 911 calls to LBPD dispatch.

At a PTA meeting in September, parents requested the possible annexation of the county land and said they would prefer the city Police Department serve the school exclusively. They also requested expansion of the school resource officer program.

Pietig said earlier this month that annexation would be a “lengthy process at significant taxpayer expense.”

Current estimates indicate annexing the land could cost more than $100,000 and take at least two years, according to a staff report prepared for Tuesday’s council meeting. There is no indication the annexation could provide additional revenue to Laguna Beach, staff said.

Pietig said Tuesday that he would favor annexation if it is necessary for redirecting 911 calls. Otherwise, he said, “my concern is spending $100,000 and not impacting the problem at all.”

Staff said annexation would require an application to the Local Agency Formation Commission, amending the city’s general plan and Local Coastal Program and possibly a California Environmental Quality Act analysis. Additionally, a formal land survey would need to be completed to delineate new city boundaries. The process also would require several noticed hearings.

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