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Forum focuses on LBUSD aquatic center, facilities; board gives direction on options

By SARA HALL

A nearly four-hour forum this week focused on a contentious aquatic center and other school facilities and featured several conceptual options, community input and board debate.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District Board of Education held a facilities master plan study session and workshop on Tuesday (May 23) at Thurston Middle School. Since the presentation of the initial proposals at the March 23 study session, district staff has received hundreds of comments and general feedback and incorporated it into the proposed project and shared several conceptual options at this week’s forum.

Tuesday’s meeting featured multiple potential concepts for the contentious aquatic center at LB High School, a Q&A session with both the board (verbal back and forth) and the audience (written questions with verbal answers from staff), more than a dozen passionate speakers during public comment, drawn-out debate amongst board members and an overview of possible financing options. During the key board discussion regarding the pool facility, there was quite a bit of disagreement (including on whether or not they could even narrow down the conceptual options without more information), uncertainty over the different options and requests for more participation from the city.

At the start of the meeting, Board President Jan Vickers emphasized that they aren’t deciding on anything and there is still a lot more information to gather.

“This is a continuing process,” Vickers said. “We are hoping to continue to work together to move forward and resolve this in the best interest for our students, our staff and our community.”

Answering an audience question about where the district is in the timeline of the overall project, LBUSD Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Jeff Dixon said it’s a fluid process. They want to ensure they capture as much feedback and community engagement as they can, he emphasized, so it’s ongoing with no solid end date yet. They’re trying not to go too slow, but also can’t go too fast either, he said.

The board instructed the team to return during a special study session likely in the final week of June. At that time, staff and the consultant will return with timelines, some initial cost estimates, and benefit comparisons of the various configurations and options the board favored.

The first iteration of the 10-year facilities plan was established and approved in 2015. The larger projects were part of the capital improvement program, but, after a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ruhnau Clarke Architects was hired in 2021 to review the remaining projects on the list. In 2022, the initial feasibility study was presented to the board and had found that the high school administration offices needed to be expanded primarily to deal with the increased need of counseling and support spaces for students. The study also covered the district office and the transitional kindergarten program.

At the March 23 meeting earlier this year, Ruhnau Clarke Architects and staff presented several proposed updates to the district’s 10-year facilities master plan that addresses facilities needs at all school sites. There were also several open house meetings held in April and May at the various school sites.

This week’s workshop featured modified concepts with the feedback incorporated into the proposal.

Based on what they heard about the program needs, there was a desire for a larger, regulation-size pool, Dixon said. The existing pool is in need of repairs and it’s at the end of its useful life, he explained. The pool was constructed in the early 1990s and its age is showing. It needs serious repairs and will continue to be utilized in the coming years, staff pointed out. This is a good time to talk about its potential replacement, staff noted while answering an audience question.

Forum focusea pool collage

Click on photo for a larger image

Rendering by Ruhnau Clarke Architects/Courtesy of LBUSD

A collage of the four conceptual options for the pool and tennis court configuration presented to the board

Roger Clarke, principal and president of Ruhnau Clarke Architects, presented several potential plans for the proposed aquatic center and tennis courts, including options with a 38-meter, 40-meter, or 50-meter pool.

The first option places a 40-meter pool in the existing location, but presents some challenges in terms of the amount of deck area, Clarke said. Bleachers could fit on the long side of the pool, but not on the short side. It also requires some expansion of the mechanical facility and additional locker and shower space because it’s a bigger pool. It would keep the tennis courts in their existing layout. It would also eliminate the pathway from upper Manzanita Drive down through the pool area, as well as demolish an existing building near Manzanita.

Considering how they could fit a 50-meter pool on the property, they looked at re-arranging the facilities. In this option, they suggested building a 50-meter pool on the east side of the property, where the existing tennis courts are, essentially flip-flopping the two uses. The pool would be configured in an east-west direction (it wouldn’t fit facing north-south) with bleachers along the long side. That would require new mechanical rooms, locker rooms and changing facilities. The existing building and the path from Manzanita could stay intact in this configuration.

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In another flip-flopped option (pool facility on the east side and tennis courts on the west side of the property), Clarke presented the possibility of building a second pool for teaching and other activities. They could place a 25-meter pool along with a 38-meter pool in the space (both placed in a north-south direction). The 38-meter pool would house most of the high school sports while recreational swimming would be done in the smaller pool. Bleachers could fit only along the long side of the larger pool. They would have the advantage of having multiple facilities that could be used simultaneously, Clarke noted. The existing building and the path from Manzanita could stay intact in this configuration.

The final flip-flopped option proposes a 40-meter pool on the east side. It provides a bit more deck space for the north-south facing pool (along with bleachers on both the short and long side of the pool) and spreads the tennis courts out more on the site. It would also eliminate the pathway from Manzanita down through the pool area.

Board member Joan Malczewski said she had a lot of thoughts on the various options, but it’s hard to weigh them against each other without knowing the relative benefits of each.

Vickers emphasized the need for cost information of each proposed option before moving ahead with anything. She needs to know a ballpark number of what it would cost to move the tennis courts and the pool location, for example.

“It’s very hard for me to give any specific direction without that kind of information,” she said.

There are likely some general ideas (like whether or not to move the pool off-site) that they can find consensus on in order to provide some direction for the team to return with more details, replied board member Kelly Osborne.

“We can look at a million options but until we know what we’re comfortable with as a board and where are non-negotiables are, we’re just spinning our wheels,” she said.

Eventually, after a lengthy discussion, the board members provided some basic direction.

Overall, all the board members agreed that the pool should remain on-site. But not all were sure if the existing pool should stay in operation during construction.

Osborne and board members Jim Kelly and Dee Perry emphasized the need for continuous service for the student-athletes. Osborne was worried about displacing the aquatic programs and noted that they don’t have other high schools in the district for interim use by LBHS students. Perry suggested exploring an additional pool in the canyon (to supplement services while the on-site aquatic center is being constructed).

Vickers said that adding another pool on-site would intensify use and essentially cause the district to take on the city’s responsibility by providing a community pool. She couldn’t agree until receiving information from the city and cost details from the district team.

Malczewski was split and commented that there are issues with both plans (closing the existing pool would displace students, but keeping it open could cause problems). They are jumping the gun trying to choose now, she added, and reiterated that they need to know the relative benefits of both in order to weigh the options.

The discussion continued regarding the city’s responsibility for a community pool.

It’s time for the city to step up and provide another pool, Vickers said.

They need to know where the city is at on the topic, Kelly agreed. The district has a joint meeting with the city on June 6 to discuss – among other things – a potential pool, parking, and current and future needs, he noted, if it doesn’t get canceled again.

“They’ve canceled every meeting that we’ve had for over a year,” he said. “It seems that we’re low priority in the community. But we really need to have these questions answered by the City Council before I think we can move forward on a lot.”

They need to have a frank discussion about the pool needs for the community and school, Kelly said.

It’d be great if the city can build a pool, but whether or not that happens, the district still needs a regulation-size pool for the student-athletes, Osborne noted.

“What we have today doesn’t meet the students’ needs, so we have to do something,” she said.

The city might also do “something,” but the school district can’t wait for the city and do nothing, Osborne said, so the board needs to home their focus on what “something” they want to do (pool size, configuration, location, etc.).

“I don’t disagree with that, but I’m saying that there’s another way to do it over our 10-year planning, which, for me, involves the city stepping up,” Vickers replied.

The two discussions (district’s need for a pool and the city’s plans, if any, for a pool) go hand-in-hand, she said. Ultimately, Vickers said she was not comfortable moving forward with any options without cost information and city input.

Regarding the two-pool configuration (a 25-meter and 38-meter) at the proposed aquatic center, board members were also unsure. It could bring more traffic, but it could also help connect the community to the school. There was general agreement that it would need to be supported by the city, since the smaller pool would essentially be for the community and only specific student use. Perry and Malczewski agreed that the 25-meter pool was not at the top of their list of the ideas they favored.

Malczewski asked for cost and benefit information comparing the options of the 40-meter and 50-meter pool on the east side of the property (flip-flopped from current layout). The two options show the pools facing different directions and the showers and bleachers in different layouts. Although a 40-meter pool could also fit in the same direction and configuration as how the 50-meter pool is shown, noted LBUSD Superintendent Jason Viloria, if that’s what the board prefers.

Board members also liked the idea of not demolishing the existing annex building near Manzanita Drive and keeping the pathway and stairs.

There was also consensus to eliminate, or at least put low on the list of prioritization, the option with the 40-meter pool in the existing location that demolished the existing annex building.

Forum focuses admin rendering

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Rendering by Ruhnau Clarke Architects/Courtesy of LBUSD

A preliminary rendering of the proposed LBUSD administration building

Regarding the LBHS administration and counseling center, Dixon pointed out that the plan will centralize student support services and create a more welcoming environment for students, staff and families. The proposal will also increase meeting spaces available for collaboration, upgrade the facility to current building codes and environmental standards, and enhance the outdoor learning environment (utilizing outdoor space was supported by several board members). The community feedback they received was to reduce the size and scope of the proposed work, eliminate the additional parking and keep the Laguna Beach High School and district office facilities separate.

Clarke shared a scheme that removes four existing classrooms and replaces it with a two-story administration and classroom building, which provides added office space, counseling space and career space for the students.

“This is purely conceptual. We haven’t sat down with staff or anything,” Clarke said. “The idea is…to show how this might start to work.”

Several board members agreed that the counseling space needs to be separate and on-site.

The district office needs ADA updates and repairs, more flexible office space for staff, updated meeting spaces for public engagement (community advisories, task forces, board meetings, etc.), Dixon said. The feedback they heard was to reduce the proposed square footage from the original plan, keep the district office separate from any school site, do not increase available parking, do not exceed the current building heights (maintain rooflines for views are preserved), and consider the impacts related to traffic, light and noise.

Clarke shared a few concepts of replacing existing buildings on the site in a single-story configuration. He noted that the building could be one or two stories, depending on the configuration and profile the board wants. Another option included lowering the eastern half of the existing parking lot and adding an upper level on top at grade, which would add approximately 68 new spaces.

Some of the challenges for this project is that a one-story increases the building footprint and limits the landscape buffer space, but a two-story building circulation requires stairs and an elevator, Dixon pointed out. Both options would not exceed the current roof heights and would take advantage of the existing topography, he added.

Several board members agreed that they’re uncertain if additional parking would be beneficial or worth the cost. They asked staff to return with cost projections for both options (with and without the added upper level).

During public comment, most of the speakers were generally opposed to the projects and raised a number of concerns, including: Bleacher noise and disturbance to the neighbors; additional lighting impact to adjacent homes; construction will block or severely impact traffic on Park Avenue (particularly during an emergency when it’s an evacuation route) and that it will be more expensive than current estimates. Some noted that they don’t believe more administrative space is needed, the current parking is adequate, or that the existing pool is minimally used and a larger pool isn’t justified. A few said they’d rather use funds to better support art and academic programs. Some suggested constructing a pool at the bus barn in Laguna Canyon or urging the city to build one on the recently acquired South Laguna property (the former St. Catherine of Siena School campus). One speaker simply noted that there is still an opportunity for litigation.

Several speakers noted the declining enrollment and questioned why the district would upgrade the facilities when student numbers are down.

Addressing those comments, Viloria emphasized the importance of continuing to support student programming. He believes they have a fundamental responsibility to meet the basic and ongoing needs of their students, which includes athletic activities. They have a water polo team or a tennis team, for example, and they will continue to have those teams regardless of the number of students at the school.

“The needs exist regardless of the size of our campuses,” Viloria said. “We are not cutting programs because we’re declining in enrollment, we never would.”

The teams are the same size as other high schools in other districts, even if the overall school enrollment is down, Osborne noted. The athletic programs are full and well-utilized, she said.

“It’s upon us, as a board, to make sure we’re supporting those students,” Osborne said.

Also, while the numbers might be down right now, but could be up in the coming years, Viloria added. Looking at the history of student numbers, Laguna Beach has gone through periods of time when the schools were smaller and when schools have grown.

Vickers agreed about the historic ups and downs. The long-time board member said she’s been through both sides of the fluctuations. It’s often been a struggle to figure out how to retain classes for students during times of low enrollment.

“One thing that we have stayed dedicated to, strictly at the high school level, is to continue to offer programs even when there is low enrollment,” she said. “That’s one of the challenges that small school districts face.”

In support of the proposed plans, a few speakers noted that the current meeting room in the front office is too small, the existing pool facilities are crowded and not up to standards for the high school teams, and that the classroom, office and counseling spaces do not meet the current needs. One commented specifically highlighted that there has been an increase in mental health issues so that space is used in that way significantly more than it was in the past. The current area causes sometimes sensitive student matters to essentially be on display for everybody to see, which is unfair and insensitive. A number of speakers were also concerned about potential interruption of services during construction and displacing the high school aquatic teams and community swimmers, a worry several board members echoed.

During the Q&A portion of the meeting, members of the public asked staff and the architect team about the pool usage data, lighting for the pool and parking areas, grade of the parking, mitigation measures for sound and light, moving the pool to another location, the reason why a 50-meter pool was suggested as an option, if the existing pool could be repaired instead, reasoning for moving the tennis courts and if taxpayers will vote on the project. Several people also asked if the project could keep the stairs from upper Manzanita Drive to the pool intact, to which staff answered that it depends on the design configuration selected by the board.

Although they didn’t answer all of the written questions submitted from the audience, because they either didn’t have all the information needed or some of them were more statements rather than questions, Dixon confirmed they would respond in the FAQ page on the district’s website.

Also on Tuesday, the board heard a presentation on potential funding options, including a $10 extension of a previous bond measure or a new rate of $10 to $30. The bond measure could be placed on the ballot either during the 2024 primary or general election. Although there was no formal direction given and the presentation was a high-level overview, some board members seemed to favor the extension idea during the regular election.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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