Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach is getting a fence — whether some community members like it or not.
The fence — part of a larger two-school, $5-million security project that also is expected to add parking and make changes to the drop-off lane and landscaping — was the subject of raucous debate at Tuesday night’s Newport-Mesa Unified School District board meeting.
The board approved a joint contract authorizing similar changes at Corona del Mar High School: fencing and gates along the perimeter of the campus to limit points of entry, changes to the parking lot and bus drop-off area, accessibility improvements and new landscaping. Proposed designs for both schools were introduced in 2018.
Construction for Ensign is expected to begin on the corner of Irvine Avenue and Coral Place, where a new parking lot with about 45 spaces will be added. More parking will be added to the front of the school on Cliff Drive in the form of a “banana lot,” with one lane for drop-off traffic and another for parking. School officials said the changes will bring the total number of parking spaces to about 100 — up from 37.
But people who live near the school complained about the introduction of a concrete fence to their winsome neighborhood.
“It looks like a penitentiary,” said Carol Dru, a 38-year Newport Beach resident.
Students raised posterboards with photos of trees they feared would be destroyed during construction.
“Trees allow for escape,” said Maddox Yarnall, 14, president of the Ensign Debate Club. “What seems like a trunk of wood to us is more than that.”
All of the roughly 15 trees that will be taken down during construction will be replaced by at least one tree, according to district spokeswoman Annette Franco — including a memorial tree for Jose Garibay, a Marine from Costa Mesa who died in 2003 while serving in Iraq.
Many people grumbled that they hadn’t been given adequate information about the planned changes.
“Where are the plans?” audience members asked repeatedly.
School officials said an informational meeting in September drew fewer than 10 community members.
Officials also contended the changes are needed to protect the safety of students going to and from school, as well as those in classrooms.
District Supt. Fred Navarro said nine students were “knocked down” by cars around Irvine Avenue and Coral Place last year, though they weren’t seriously injured.
“This is about creating a safe environment for our students to get to our schools,” he said.
The plan complements a Newport Beach traffic study that calls for a dedicated drop-off area on Cliff Drive, where motorists typically pull onto the street shoulder, Navarro added.
Faced with a roomful of community members asking for more time to review the plans as district staff warned that deferring the contract could cost the district more money, the board voted 4-2 to give the go-ahead to a contract for Telacu Construction Management of Orange. Vice President Karen Yelsey was absent.
When a board member asked the district’s chief operating officer, Tim Holcomb, how much delaying the contract might cost, Holcomb said he wouldn’t want to discuss that in public session.
“I am really conflicted, because I had some assurances that we would listen to the community and we would make some changes,” said board member Vicki Snell, who voted yes over a chorus of boos. “If this doesn’t go through and we don’t start some work during President’s [Day] week, we will lose a lot of money. ... Voting yes doesn’t mean I am voting against hearing what you have to say.”
As part of the vote, board President Martha Fluor added several requirements intended to improve communication with the public: holding at least two community meetings, making all plans available online, putting up site renderings at the schools and reconvening the district’s policies committee to examine Newport-Mesa’s noticing protocol.
Board member Ashley Anderson, who voted against the contract along with trustee Michelle Barto, asked for more information from district staff.
“What is the timeline?” Anderson asked. “[If] we as a board don’t have that information, the community certainly doesn’t have it.”
The board requested a formal timeline for the construction, which Holcomb said is expected to be done by the end of the summer.