In late July, it was announced one of Oceanside’s elementary schools had to be shuttered because it was imploding.
Two sinkholes at Garrison Elementary caused the Oceanside Unified School District to declare that the school near El Camino Real and Oceanside Boulevard had become unusable. Parents of over 200 Garrison students were told that their children would now have to attend San Luis Rey Elementary, about two miles away. San Luis Rey will spend the rest of the 2019-20 school year with a packed-out K-through-5 population of 579 kids.
Last month, the Oceanside Unified school board wondered out loud if the 22-school student school district with two high schools and four middle schools, might actually close and sell off the property of one of its 16 elementary schools if the cost of fixing the Garrison sinkholes is too great.
Garrison Elementary, built in 1970, was already slated for a major facility overhaul. At the district school board meeting September 10, school board members asked if it was such a good idea to make those improvements if the 50-year-old underground storm drain system was collapsing.
“If we put all this new equipment in and the soil fails, we may have a lawsuit,” said school board president Juanita Evans. She said parents could claim, “…it’s you’re fault, you knew about the sinkholes, therefore you are liable…We know the sinkholes are there and it hasn’t gotten any better.”
Some members of the board looked perturbed when they were told that the district would have to wait until its January 21 meeting to hear the bids from contractors on how much they would charge to dig up and replace the old corrugated metal drains at Garrison.
One board member wondered what would happen if the drain system is replaced and then the soil resettles.
Another member suggested that if it is too expensive to fix the sinkholes, it might be better for the district to cut bait: “If it’s too much, I’d rather put the money into our students than into another hole.”
At the September 10 meeting, a father of two San Luis Rey Elementary students said “The rumor is that one of the schools [San Luis Rey or Garrison] will be closing in the future.” Before the meeting, two parents said it was their understanding that both Garrison and San Luis Rey had both faced declining enrollments, and that they had fallen below a 72 per cent threshold that would mean they could be targeted for closure.
District spokesman Matthew Jennings said he had never heard of that 72 percent threshold, but that Oceanside Unified had undergone declining enrollment due to falling birthrate and immigration numbers.
Figures show that Oceanside Unified has undergone declining enrollment each year over the last four years. In 2015-16, Oceanside Unified had a total of 21,024 students, including charter school kids. This year, it has 19,749 students.
One of the oldest schools in the district, Ditmar Elementary near Coast Highway, was closed as an elementary school due to declining enrollment. And last year, the district shuttered the Ocean Shores continuation school. Continuation students are now being taken to Ditmar, which has evolved as a magnate school for independent study or continuation students.
The Ocean Shores facility is now being used by the city of Oceanside to house the crew from Oceanside Fire Station Number 3 on El Camino Real while that station undergoes a renovation, due to a fire in May while the fire crew was out on call. Jennings says it is unclear what the district will do with the Ocean Shores facility.
One parent had two boys attending San Luis Rey Elementary said at the September 10 meeting, “There are too many bodies at the campus. We are clustered with too many people. There is no room for them to play.”
Another parent complained of 40 students in one class. Another said that before it was condemned, Garrison had seven classes without functioning air conditioning. Broken-down plumbing at San Luis Rey was brought up by another parent.
About 100 students and parents showed up to complain of the cost of busing or the elimination of busing altogether for some students.
Speaker Lynn Gonzalez says neighborhood kids near Ditmar School were lied to. “You took away their neighborhood school and promised transportation would be provided.” She said the buses never appeared. Another parent said the monthly fee for kids to ride a bus to school was $33 but jumped to $50 this year.
A handful of parents and teachers told the board that Oceanside Unified had become too top heavy with highly paid staffers in the district office.
One school district employee who did want to be named says the district scammed the taxpayers when Garrison was merged with San Luis Rey.
“When they put the schools together, they took the principal of Garrison, Dominic Comacho, and the principal of San Luis Rey, Leah Dardis, and gave them cushy jobs with the district. Who knows what they are doing now? And they took Bob Rowe who had already retired, took him out of retirement, and made him principal of the combined school.”
Records show that in 2018, Comacho earned $169,116 and Dardis made $137,771 in total pay and benefits. District spokesman Jennings said the two administrators now serve the district as “principals on special assignment.” He did not outline what those assignments were.
Jennings said that a detailed July 26 Union-Tribune article that said Oceanside Unified “is at risk of financial failure” was misleading. Michael Simonson, deputy superintendent of the San Diego County Office of Education says that his office signed off on Oceanside’s 2019-20 budget. “They had a qualified certification at the last reporting period in March which means they may not meet their financial obligations in the future without making reductions…The district continues to work diligently towards a positive certification through budget reductions.”