Crossing the Line
Marina Station kids will live near MPUSD schools but outside district boundaries.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Marina and the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District share a plan for the handful of new and expanded schools that will be built and remodeled in the city’s myriad of new housing developments. The nearly 2,500 additional students expected to live in Marina over the next 13 years would study in state-of-the-art classrooms and practice football in an artificial-turf stadium. The assumption is that all of these students would attend MPUSD schools, close to their homes. The only problem is that 540 of these projected students actually fall within the boundaries of the North Monterey County Unified School District. Instead of riding their bikes or walking to Marina schools along the coast, many of these students would instead ride buses through artichoke fields to Castroville.
Several Marina residents want to prevent this scenario. The owners of Armstrong Ranch, Olson Elementary School, a nearby church, and a water well recently petitioned the Monterey County Office of Education to become part of MPUSD. If approved, the change would move Creekbridge Homes’ Marina Station development out of the North County school district. The 1,360-home project is planned for 320 acres of Armstrong Ranch.
To accommodate the additional students, Creekbridge wants to expand nearby Olson Elementary School and funnel students into a spruced-up Los Arboles Middle School and a new Marina High School. City leaders support the plan, as do MPUSD officials. But NMCUSD doesn’t want to play along.
Superintendent Carolyn Post says the land has always been part of the North County district and board members want it to stay this way. Post says the district would like to build a new elementary school in Armstrong Ranch. “We believe we can serve the children,” she says.
But neither Creekbridge nor MPUSD believes that a new school would be feasible. Much of the development site falls under the flight path of the Marina Municipal Airport, says Chris Luffman, Creekbridge’s director of site development. By law, developers can’t build new schools under existing flight paths. Luffman says the eastern portion the project site is also problematic because it’s home to endangered tiger salamanders.
Tom Woodruff, chief business officer for MPUSD, says even if NMCUSD could build an elementary school, middle school and high school students would still have to be bussed. “It would be a shame to split a city between two school districts,” Woodruff says. “It seems like putting kids on a bus and taking them to a different community is not in the interest of the kids.”
But gaining more students is in the interest of North County district officials. Post says the school district dropped 150 students this year and is expected to lose close to 90 next year. Like other shrinking districts across California and in Monterey County, NMCUSD will receive fewer state dollars if enrollment continues to decline.
With Marina Station approaching City Council approval in July, Armstrong Ranch could be NMCUSD’s best shot at growing. But some Marina parents are ready to put up a fight.
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Ruby Cohan roots through her brown purse with her son Connor standing patiently beside her. She quickly pulls out a brush with strands of her reddish-blond hair, a makeup bag and leftover lunch wrapped in white deli paper. She can’t find a pen or pencil. Connor’s older brother Spencer, a blond fourth grader, lays next to the soda machines in a conference room at Ione Olson Elementary School. It’s Friday afternoon and Spencer is in no mood to start his homework.
Spencer just returned from an Olson field trip to the Monterey Museum of Art and Colton Hall. As an active member of the school’s PTA, Cohan organizes such field trips and fundraisers for the 360-student school. Since school buses weren’t available, Cohan loaded the 30 students onto a Monterey-Salinas Transit bus instead.
Over the past six years, Cohan says she has invested a lot of time into making Olson a better place for her kids. Now, Creekbridge wants to pump as much as $6 million into Marina schools—more money than any PTA could ever raise.
Connor also attends Olson. His mother wants her third and youngest son, when old enough, to go to Olson as well, even though her family lives within the boundaries of Marina Vista Elementary School.
Creekbridge has promised to build more classrooms for Olson, get rid of the portables, and develop a baseball and soccer field. But if Marina Station remains within the boundaries of NMCUSD, then the money would go to North County schools instead.
“So, although the City of Marina would house the children, the fees would go to improve schools outside our district,” Cohan says.
Cohan says she is considering buying a home in Marina Station but not if it’s part of NMCUSD. “We are not going to if we live a yard away from Olson and have to bus our kids to Castroville,” she says. “I think that’s ridiculous. It presents a huge dilemma for any other family who buys in this [development].”
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Since the late ‘70s, property owners in Armstrong Ranch have tried unsuccessfully to become part of MPUSD. About a year ago, district officials discovered Olson school also falls within the jurisdiction of NMCUSD. The oversight came up during research for Marina Station. The school is still owned and operated by MPUSD, but the property and the adjacent Armstrong Ranch are part of NMCUSD.
When city officials prepared the environmental impact report for Marina Station, however, they did not consult with NMCUSD. Post says the City shouldn’t have only met with MPUSD. Post also says the projected students from the development are underestimated. “It’s too bad they spent so much energy based on incorrect information.”
More recently, Marina and MPUSD approved an agreement that outlines how to meet the needs of future students in Marina. Once again, NMCUSD was left out of the discussion, the hope being that the district would go along with the territory transfer.
Now the decision falls to the county’s Office of Education. The office has until the first week of June to validate the petition, which seeks to incorporate Armstrong Ranch and Olson school into MPUSD. Ron Eastwood, communications officer for the education office, says a series of hearing and studies will follow.
Meanwhile, Creekbridge will likely start selling Marina Station homes in fall 2008. It will be a tough sell if homebuyers have to drop off their children at school in Castroville.