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Departing Newport-Mesa Unified trustees honored, still pledge to support Estancia High theater project

The Estancia High School senior lawn, Nov. 18, 2020.
Newport-Mesa Unified School District will build a new theater at Estancia High School in an area used now as a senior lawn with mature sycamores that would be removed to accommodate construction.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Outgoing Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustees Martha Fluor, Dana Black and Vicki Snell were recognized Tuesday for their combined 60 years of service — but even with retirements approaching, each pledged to support completion of a new Estancia High School theater.

“This is a project that has been voted on,” Fluor said in board meeting Tuesday, her last after 29 years on the dais. “There’s no discussion — it’s proceeding.”

Trustees grappled with the district’s plan to build a $32-million performing arts complex with a 350-seat theater at the Costa Mesa campus by 2023 on an area currently home to the senior lawn and several mature sycamore trees.

Although the project has been on the district’s wish list since Newport-Mesa voters approved the Measure F bond facilities measure in 2005, only recently had the funding and opportunities lined up to make the project a reality.

A rendering shows the new theater complex (center) at Estancia High School.
A rendering shows the new theater complex (center) at Estancia High School.
(Courtesy of Newport-Mesa Unified School District)

Board members agreed in January 2019 to hire Los Angeles-based Pfeiffer Partners as the site architect and unanimously signed off on renderings that October. A Dec. 3 virtual meeting is planned to update stakeholders on the plan and project timelines.

But some community members are voicing opposition to the district’s plan to tear out the nearly 1-acre senior lawn — a natural respite to students otherwise enclosed in a windowless school.

“This school has no windows; what it does have are the gorgeous trees, which have not only been a part of Estancia’s history but a place of peace for students,” resident and retired teacher Sandy Asper said in a public comment. “Find another place and another time. Find a way to keep the trees.”

Trustee Ashley Anderson maintained the location of the theater was not fully vetted with community members before plans were submitted to the Division of State Architect in Sacramento earlier this week.

“Everyone wants this theater, there’s no doubt about that. My concern is the community outreach,” she said. “It’s really upsetting to me this process has gone completely without the community’s involvement. You need to go to the community at the beginning of the project, not at the very end.”

Trustee Michelle Barto said she would appreciate more updates and information on projects so she didn’t feel blindsided by residents who seemed to know more than she did.

Anderson’s comments drew criticism from other trustees on the board, who pointed out district staff established a project review committee to select sites on campus where the theater could be built. That team comprised an architect, one parent and one community representative, Estancia Principal Michael Halt and the school’s drama and music teachers.

Chelsey Lowe and Gryffin, residents of Newport Beach, are one of 12 competing teams on Amazon’s new show, “The Pack.”

Ara Zareczny, director of facilities development, explained the committee weighed the pros and cons of five potential spots on campus and found the other four locations presented added challenges.

For example, placing the theater on the north end of campus by the tennis courts would require staff to relocate the courts, while a parking lot on Estancia’s southeast corner contained sewer lines and equipment that would be costly to disrupt.

“We went into this open-minded,” she said.

The selected site would give the theater a visual prominence and provide a new look to the school’s front, Zareczny told board members.

Snell, whose Trustee Area 1 represents the Estancia neighborhood, said she made it a point to attend meetings and discussions about the project and said any revisions to the theater plan at this point would cause undue setbacks and potential cost increases.

“If we delay this even longer the scope will be affected and we will not get the theater that is equal to what other schools have,” she said. “It’s time to move forward.”

Newport-Mesa Unified Supt. Russell Lee-Sung said he would work to improve communication between staff and board members in the future. He defended the removal of the sycamores as part of a wider effort to beautify Estancia.

“We all do not want to cut down trees, particularly mature trees. But this was something that was weighed as the pros and cons by the committee,” he said. “In the new design, there are many new trees. It’s a beautiful project.”

Outgoing trustees Fluor, Black, Snell recognized for service

Newport-Mesa Unified outgoing trustees Martha Fluor, Dana Black and Vicki Snell
Newport-Mesa Unified officials on Tuesday recognized outgoing trustees, from left, Martha Fluor, Dana Black and Vicki Snell for their long service and dedication to the district.
(Courtesy of Newport-Mesa Unified School District)

District staff, residents and students took a moment Tuesday to recognize the work and dedication of Fluor, Black and Snell during their final regular board meeting before incoming trustees Leah Ersoylu (Area 1), Carol Cane (Area 3) and Krista Weigand (Area 6) are sworn in next month.

Fluor — who started on the board in 1991 and served as president six times — and Black, who’s logged 24 years as a Newport-Mesa trustee, were presented with Distinguished Service Awards for their longstanding service, while they and Snell were given certificates of commendation from Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley and Newport Beach Mayor Will O’Neill.

“I’ve worked with a lot of board members, and the three of you are among the best,” Lee-Sung said. “You deeply, deeply care about this district, about this community and about every student and every staff member. I so appreciate and respect that.”

Trustees shared well-wishes and fond memories between them. Black said she was looking forward to retirement with a passion, while Fluor had a different take.

“I will miss you all terribly,” she said. “But I will come back, and I’m going to haunt you. Because there are some things that are left undone, and we’ve got to get those done.”

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