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District’s administrative failures put Estancia High at further disadvantage

Poor Estancia High School.

The misadventures at the Westside Costa Mesa campus over the past year or so — those involving the pool, the poles and the putrid odors — would almost be comical if they weren’t so dismaying.

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A quick recap of those issues:

The foul smells in some Estancia classrooms had been reported by teachers and others for years. Crews were eventually sent out to repair and inspect sewer lines, but only after repeated complaints to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District that the noxious odors could compromise the health of students and teachers.

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The district says it has now completed the inspections and repairs related to the “sewer concerns” and will provide an update at the Feb. 27 board meeting.

Meanwhile, the poles in question were 20 feet tall and were intended to support netting around Estancia’s baseball field to protect nearby homes and solar panels from stray baseballs.

But complaints by neighbors led the district to remove the poles before the entire structure was completed.

I’ve seen varying reports about the cost of that episode. But it’s fair to suppose that the district ended up spending several hundred thousand dollars on poles that it hasn’t used, which will now be sold to a contractor via a public bid process.

And then there is the pool fiasco.

The district budgeted $7 million for a new aquatic center at Estancia, the only high school in Newport-Mesa that lacks an Olympic-size pool. But the pool was drained before the district had completed the construction bid process, and when bids came in higher than what had been budgeted, the whole project was thrown into limbo.

Parents and other community members were upset, particularly since Estancia students must be bused to Costa Mesa High School for the foreseeable future if they wish to partake in aquatic sports.

The pool will be refilled — by mid-March, the district says — for a cost of more than $100,000. Then it must be drained again when the construction eventually starts.

Estancia parents and students weren’t the only ones who were angry about this latest mix-up. School board members don’t usually chastise the administration in public; indeed, board critics often charge trustees with being too enabling of Newport-Mesa’s superintendent, Fred Navarro.

But at a board meeting last month, trustee Martha Fluor displayed a refreshing degree of indignation, saying that the pool debacle was “absolutely unacceptable.”

“It boggles my mind, and I am very angry about this,” Fluor said, adding that the episode was “another $100,000 mistake that our staff has cost us.”

The district has since increased the budget for the pool project to $9 million, and it’s hoping for completion in time for the 2019 swim season.

It hardly seems fair that Estancia should be beset with these extra woes. The school already has plenty of other issues that require a robust and thoughtful response.

In a district with gaping disparities in income levels, Estancia can often look like the poor stepchild. Unlike the schools in wealthy Newport Beach, Estancia serves a largely low-income population. Standardized test scores are below the state average, most glaringly in math.

The Great Schools website, which compiles data on schools, reports that it finds “very concerning” that Estancia’s disadvantaged students might be falling far behind other students in the state and that the school might have large achievement gaps.

None of which in any way suggests that Estancia’s 1,300 students are any less hardworking, or that its teachers and administrators — led by Principal Michael Halt — aren’t doing their level best to provide opportunities for those kids.

Quite the contrary.

The last thing Estancia needs right now is disrespect. It needs all the support it can get to meet its educational goals.

But the school’s particular set of concerns do mean that the staff already has plenty on its hands, not the least of which is trying to overcome the social and economic challenges of the community it serves. Which makes it more the pity that it has also been faced with a string of distracting, costly and largely preventable problems.

While each of these issues, considered in isolation, aren’t devastating, taken together they represent what many see as a disturbing pattern in district management. The Keystone Cops bungling represents what some believe is a concerning level of dysfunction followed by a sidestepping of responsibility.

As with the Swun Math episode — the district’s foot-dragging response to faulty math curriculum — observers are left to wonder how deeply teachers and students are affected by imprudent decision-making.

Granted, running a school district is a tough job. Of course mistakes will sometimes be made.

But there must be some accountability — an apology, at the least, followed by a sincere effort to address the underlying problems that contribute to an error-prone climate.

Don’t be surprised if pictures of Estancia’s barren pool show up on campaign materials for candidates running for school board seats in the fall — a reminder of an embarrassing mistake and a metaphor for unfulfilled promise.

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