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LBUSD Board approves annual update to 10-year Facilities Master Plan

By SARA HALL

A majority of the local school board last week approved their annual review of a planning document that reflects district needs for the next decade.

Members of the Laguna Beach Unified School District Board of Education voted 4-1 on Dec. 14 to approve the 2023 update to the 10-year Facilities Master Plan. Board member Dee Perry dissented.

According to the staff report, the annual update for the comprehensive FMP was initially presented to the board on March 23, 2023. Since that time several additional study sessions (the latest on October 12) and open houses were used to gather feedback and get board direction related to the scope of the updates.

Some of the major projects included in the update are to replace the existing Laguna Beach High School pool with a new, 50-meter pool, expand transitional kindergarten and preschool facilities at each elementary school, renovate Thurston Middle School’s gym to allow for seating to be used during games, build a new counseling center and administration building at LBHS, and constructing new district offices in their existing location.

As with previous meetings on the plan, the primary topic of discussion was the pool and aquatic facility.

Board member Joan Malczewski reiterated the importance of working with the neighborhood regarding design of the aquatic facility. They need to ensure that the district continues to get public input and officials are responsive to the resident concerns to design it in the best possible way, given the residential neighborhood it’s in, she said.

Each neighbor has very specific issues and requests and the district should address them individually, instead of trying to summarize what the entire community feels, noted board member Kelly Osborne. Each neighbor should inform the board on how the project specifically impacts their property and they can work together to find a solution, she added.

“If a neighbor that is adjacent to the property where we’re trying to do construction has a specific issue, I encourage them to come forward with those specific issues instead of just going and trying to stir up opposition to a project that benefits our students,” she said. “We’re more than happy to take those comments.”

Neighbors should talk to staff first about incorporating ideas into the plan, clarified board member Jim Kelly.

LBUSD Board approves annual update pool site plan

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Rendering courtesy of LBUSD

A preliminary rendering of the pool and tennis courts site plan

Responding to the comments that the aquatic design group reportedly said that there are no benefit differences between the 40 and 50-meter pool options, LBUSD Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Jeff Dixon clarified the remark.

“When they spoke to the difference between a 40 and a 50-meter pool, no consideration was given for multiple programs or sports using that pool at the same time, they were simply talking about the technical ability of an individual pool to support an individual program with no consideration, as I mentioned, of sharing the space or having multiple teams,” he explained.

They have since clarified and recommended – based on the information provided and the programs they’ve reviewed – a 50-meter pool.

The board previously reached consensus on a 50-meter pool, Osborne said, and a majority agreed that a bigger body of water will better accommodate more uses.

“We don’t have very many successful examples of leading aquatics programs that also joint use their pool with an active community – they just don’t exist because they don’t work very well,” she said.

“We are moving in the right direction on this,” Osborne said.

The design will cover all of nuances of scheduling, how teams and other (student and community) groups will fit in there to fit their needs, and how the district may or may not share the pool with the city, she noted. All of that will be forthcoming, Osborne confirmed. A bigger body of water that doesn’t impact other programs or properties, like in the initial plans, is a good way to go forward, she commented.

Board President Jan Vickers also echoed a comment from student board member Chase Benson that an improved aquatics facilities that could host home games will bring the student body together and create a sense of community and unity. It’s doubtful that most students travel to watch the LBUSD games in other cities, but they would definitely attend at their own school site, Vickers noted.

Following up on comments she had heard, Perry questioned if – even with the 50-meter pool – not everybody would be finished using the pool by 9 p.m. and if there was a plan so kids aren’t in the facility late at night.

“We do need to actually begin design and start programming it in order to answer those questions,” Dixon said.

This is just the facilities master plan, he emphasized, which sets the vision that they want for this project. The actual technical components and how it would be scheduled will be contingent on the size of a pool, as well as negotiations with the city and how it could potentially be shared, he explained. At this point, there is no design on any of the projects, he reiterated.

But staff heard the concern for the late-night use by students “loud and clear,” Dixon added.

“I’m getting a lot of push back for swimmers who currently use the pool and they weren’t aware that this was going on, that the pool was possibly going to be closed for a period of time, and they were just appalled that that could happen,” Kelly said.

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Once designs are approved and this moves forward to the construction phase, if the city does not partner with the district and if LBUSD has to close the pool in order to build a new one, Kelly said he would be in favor of moving the new pool to where the tennis courts are and keeping the old one opened until construction is complete.

“The city has been promising us for 10 years that they’re going to build a pool,” Kelly said.

It is a plan without specific designs at this point, Vickers emphasized.

“Those will come and that’s part of what we’ll finish up with the city in the next few months when we get more communication from them about their intent,” before starting the design process, she said.

Dixon didn’t have an update on the discussions with the city, but did note that, as common with conservative budgeting practices, they don’t assume any revenue coming from the city in their projections until they can confirm they city’s intent.

Replying to a hypothetical situation that Perry raised concerns about, Osborne said that if the city decided they wanted to build their own pool and did not want to partner with LBUSD that would mean the district would have a “very long runway” to learn more about the city’s plans and then would be able to adjust.

Included in the update to the facilities master plan is a tentative project phasing plan that is based on available cash flow and feedback received thus far. The cash flow is intended to both provide some timing expectations for the projects and take advantage of potential state and/or federal grants that the district is currently eligible to receive. The timing of the projects also allows the district to properly position itself to speed up or delay some projects based on new information or resources that may become available in future years.

Answering another board member question about prioritizing projects, Dixon explained that some are planned sooner than others based on available cash flow. There are also outside dollars that could support the projects that they tried to align with, he added.

Underlying the conversation on the aquatic center, Osborne said she’s looked at the data on the development of the sport of water polo over the last 30 years and it has shown huge growth. Comparing where the district started in the 1990s with the pool development project to where they are today, it’s progressed along with the popularity of the sport.

Regarding all the comments they received related to sand volleyball courts, Osborne noted that it’ a new CIF sanctioned sport that requires a specialized type of athletic facility. If it’s more cost effective and fits into the plan to build new courts as part of the larger field improvement project, then that makes sense, she said. If there’s a way to build them sooner to meet the needs of the new sport that’s now approved with CIF rules, she would also support that.

“I like how it’s laid out to try and do things in a thoughtful fashion,” Osborne said.

Malczewski emphasized that the high school administrative offices and counseling center are high priorities for her.

“I understand we have to stage the cost, but I regret that the changes to the counseling center are going to take that long,” she said.

She also clarified that she supported funding the field improvements, but not including turf.

“I’m strongly against adding turf to our property in any capacity,” Malczewski said.

It can be discussed in further detail at a future meeting, she added.

There are opportunities moving forward for the project plans to change and be fine-tuned, Vickers noted. They get studied every year, and looking to the future in regards to enrollment or other questions and concerns, they may be adjusted.

“No design has been done,” she said. “These projects may get changed in scope because it is under an annual review.”

The district is currently in good financial shape and they do their best with the projections, she added.

Districts all over the state are experiencing declining enrollment and, as a solution, many are combining schools or closing certain campuses for administrative offices, Perry said.

“I don’t think we should be looking at a new one-story classroom building for over $6 million at El Morro. I agree that we have to do the modernization for TK and the preschool, but doing a big building when we have declining enrollment and there may be more and more empty classrooms, I don’t feel is right. I don’t feel like that’s being fiscally responsible,” Perry said.

They’ve had discussions at length about how, as a board, they support the preschool and TK programs, and the kindergarten rooms are due for an update, Osborne said. If enrollment data changes, they can adjust at a future review, she added.

“Based on the conversations that we’ve had to date about what our vision is for early learning, I would say that this facilities plan shows that,” she said. “Based on what we have today and the investments we’ve made to date, I feel like our facilities master plan should mirror that.”

Osborne noted that the plans also include modernizing the kitchens to make them more focused on scratch cooking and significant changes to how students meet on campus for lunch and outdoor learning. Those both speak to other board goals, she added.

Ultimately, they have to decide if they want cutting edge, age-appropriate learning facilities (like including small toilets in the room, for example), Osborne said. If not, they’ll be sticking young kids in rooms that aren’t appropriately sized for them, which comes with its own challenges, she added.

“I think, intuitively, if we support preschool, TK, and kindergarten we need to modernize our facilities over the next 10 years. We have to invest in it,” Osborne said. “That’s what’s driving a lot of this.”

LBUSD Superintendent Jason Viloria clarified that while they are proposing adding three classrooms for preschool, which require more square footage, they are removing others. It’s not adding a new building and new rooms, it’s a “remove and replace,” but building rooms that meet the needs of the preschool program, as well as a larger food service.

“We’re really not walking away with more classrooms by doing the modernization,” of that building, he said.

A handful of residents spoke during public comment, with most opposing the plan and, specifically, the aquatic center project. Opponents called the plan fiscally irresponsible and incompatible to the overall community.

The lone supporter said the plan was a commitment to essential facilities, while continuing to provide the appropriate instruction and curriculum and being mindful of the changing global demands.

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

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