$1M FIELD FOR LOCAL BASEBALL CLUB From SCHOOL BOND FUNDS
It’s a delight to see the new baseball field at Torrey Hills Elementary School.
DMUSD’s unveiling outperformed expectations – much of the lead-up was underplayed and even a bit ho-hum, similar to the initial project description below that doesn’t even mention baseball.
DMUSD actually hit a home run for little league and the local community, and deserves our shout out 📣. The field is on par with some professional minor league fields.
Take a look for yourself at what they transformed. Going from a plain grass field to a MLB-size 60/90 infield, 300’ deep outfield, 30’ backstop, dugouts, and even a handicapped accessible path from parking to the bleacher area (for fans, students, and spectators) is major league.
The field is a stunning replacement of the aging Del Mar Heights Elementary 60/90 field that was an unfortunate casualty of the 28% larger footprint facilities and expanded parking lot. And while it cost a pretty penny to build (about $1M when you add together the contractor, architect and other fees, excluding interest – more on this below in the Epilogue: Baseball Budget Blowout), there’s no question it is a big time field upgrade over Del Mar Heights Field of Dreams.
There’s little doubt this field will rightly ascend to become the crown jewel of the three baseball field complex at Torrey Hills.
FINAL PIECE OF THE TORREY HILLS OUTDOOR RECREATION PUZZLE
The field supplements and completes the outdoor recreational puzzle for the Torrey Hills Community. As shown in the Google Earth image below, Torrey Hills now has one-stop-shopping for outdoor recreation with three baseball fields of varying sizes, a multitude of soccer fields, basketball, playground areas, jogging, and two expansive grassy park areas for families. There’s even a informal mountain bike park in an undeveloped dirt lot that someday might serve future expansion.
DEL MAR LITTLE LEAGUE’S GRAND SLAM
According to Chris Delehanty, Director of Facilities at DMUSD, DMUSD began working with Del Mar Little League during the Summer of 2019. There were no public updates or design meetings during that summer, and no draft design for Del Mar Heights had yet been publicly revealed. Delehanty claims he worked with Del Mar Little League (DMLL) to agree to replace the Heights’ 60/90 baseball field with a brand new field across the interstate at Torrey Hills. (Delehanty 10.23.2019). The then PTA President at Del Mar Heights dates the coordination between the organizations even earlier than Delehanty. (“The little league board has been involved in this process from Day 1.”)(T. Dixon 12.18.2019)
To their credit, DMLL was definitely ahead of the game that most of us were playing. We often wondered why DMLL was originally leaning with us in the fight to save the Del Mar Heights Field of Dreams, but then went AWOL after the Summer. The reality is that they were just way smarter than us. Stated crisply by a DMLL board member: “We moved it to Torrey Hills.” (B. Dixon 8.11.2020)
When the new Heights school design was first publicly revealed on September 23, 2019, the rest of us did not know the ship had sailed on the Field of Dreams. So we did the predictable: we rallied, crowded into DMUSD board meetings, wrote emails into the black hole of Trustee-land, put up hundreds of signs in the yards of supporters, and did whatever else we could do to give voice to the community uprising to keep the local fields.
Looking back, I still chuckle at our naiveté. By the time the full Heights’ community had awakened and the community upswell to save the fields had begun in September-October 2019 after the hoisting of a citizen petition, DMLL leadership had long since cut its deal with DMUSD, apparently knowing beforehand the futility of trying to save the fields. They were sitting back comfortably drinking margaritas with a deal inked or winked, while we trudged from meeting to meeting only to hear the DMUSD Board of Trustees, school leadership, PTA chieftains, and some minions launch verbal rockets at us, chanting that the Del Mar fields had “nothing to do with education,” about how “I’m not willing to waste a dime” to save them, about how the fields were a “private school matter,” about how we were a “small but vocal minority” acting out of mere self interest, and one pleasant person said “sit down and shut up.”
If only we’d known back then what we know now, we could sure have saved ourselves some time and trouble – and maybe an alternative school design or two (thank you again, Rolf). To be sure, the district played us like a Stradivarious, beating us verbally while at the same time stringing us along and feigning open-mindedness: Rafner 1.22.2020: “It’s not over ‘till it’s over.”; McClurg 1.22.2020: “I am telling you this district is listening”; Delehanty 1.22.2020: “There’s always the ability to make changes”; Halpern 10.23.2019: “It saddens me that some in the community have been led to believe that we are losing the fields at Del Mar Heights.”
While Del Mar will certainly miss its Field of Dreams (and the other grass playfields near them – 2 acres of the fields gone), maybe we should have just accepted the fact earlier they were nearly 50 years old, having been cobbled together by a series of fundraising drives around 1970 that resulted in a Del Mar community gift of facilities to the local elementary school. Without recent maintenance, the step off the pitchers mound had divots, the base paths were worn down, the dugouts and bleachers were rusty in places. There were a few bald spots in the outfield, and at least one gopher called the vicinity “home.” [Interesting fact: according to the National Wildlife Federation, pocket gophers are solitary animals that live alone.]
Maybe even vital memories at the Field of Dreams were fading and becoming stale – as our last local star to rise into the Majors was Garrett Stubbs, catcher for the Houston Astros who played on the Field of Dreams a distant 15 years ago. [For some though, the memories will never die – click here to see the 2019 Fox News piece on our Field of Dreams]
And we should never forget what we learned from DMUSD: that while the Heights’ field that remains will be the district’s smallest, more than an acre below the district average, it “is not only adequate but it’s an improvement” (Halpern 10.23.2019) “We’ll still have backstops.” (Delehanty 10.23.2019)
CONCERNS RAISED BY SOME
Some in the community have raised concerns over the new baseball field.
1. Project #1?
There’s been surprise at the velocity of the construction and the baseball field shouldering aside other projects in the construction queue. The Torrey Hills baseball field admittedly takes home the Champion’s Trophy for being the first big-ticket MM-funded project to reach completion, despite failing to garner Honorable Mention (or in fact any mention) in the specific list of 144 MM bond projects.
I was alarmed initially, and also feared that the hefty price tag for an unlisted item might push priority projects off the project list entirely (especially with the Budget Blowout). But after reflection, I began to realize the wisdom of what the district did for the physical and emotional health of the kids during this particular time.
Truth be told, we cannot know for sure what those Trustees were thinking, because they didn’t share their thinking, and the Superintendent has never been one to share her thinking in public. Said another way, we cannot know for sure why DMUSD prioritized this field for completion ahead of the other 144 promised items in the MM bond.
But it should be obvious the little league season is on the horizon. Maybe the district realized the vital importance of being ready for the first pitch. Denying the kids this field to start their season – especially for an outdoor sport that is relatively safe among the choices currently available for kids, was a smart way to give back to the community and to get the kids outdoors where they are most safe and enjoying exercise.
Or maybe the next Trustee election is right around the corner and someone wanted to tout a $1M little league field just as voter packets arrive, a standard technique for politicians at all levels of government. It is suspicious that the “press packet” that DMUSD delivered to the Del Mar Times for reporting on the September 23 monthly board meeting caused the Times to report only the fabulous new baseball field, even though the meeting covered many serious and some controversial topics addressed by the public, and even though the baseball field was only 1.4% of the total meeting time (less than 3 minutes out of the full 3 hours and 17 minutes).
As for pushing higher priority projects from the perch, this happens with regularity on school bond expenditures. I dare say like other areas of politics it is commonplace for districts to promise everyone everything until the votes are in and the bond passes – and to then stop talking about the promises and start rearranging priorities to suit whatever needs the Trustees and Superintendent later agree upon, either privately or openly. By law, the list of projects in the bond is not binding on the school district. While they cannot spend money on things that are not in the bond (except maybe a new baseball field, see below for further discussion on that), they are not obligated to spend money on the things that are written in the bond – no matter how essential they were in the eyes of the voting public when the bond passed. Go read the cases.
The only way to keep your school’s project on the high priority perch is to pay attention, keep your eyes on the current project list and overall bond budget (through public records requests, if necessary), and apply continuous pressure through voting or otherwise. BTW, it’s been 18 months or more since we have seen the prioritized list of projects and an updated overall bond budget for DMUSD – and we know at least one big ticket item is way over budget.
So while it is a legitimate concern that other projects might actually be bumped by the new field, that would be true whether or not it had been built.
2. WE DIDN’T VOTE FOR THIS FIELD IN THE MM BOND
I admit this is a tough one, but stay to the end.
First, a confession. When I originally heard unsubstantiated rumors early in the Fall of 2019 about our MM bond tax dollars being spent on a replacement baseball field that would likely be locked up as a practical matter by little league practices and games after hours and on weekends, I was worried. I figured that if a new field was built elsewhere, that would be just one more argument for why the Del Mar Fields could be paved over and replaced with facilities and more parking.
Taxpayer waste alarm bells also were ringing my ears, loud and clear – for I knew both standard bond language and the California Constitution prohibited using bond funds on anything except school facilities – which I figured would exclude a baseball field and baseball facilities designed for use by an outside organization. Plus we already had a 60/90 baseball field at Del Mar Heights, and the facilities had been paid for, not by school bond money, but instead by Del Mar citizen donations that allowed the field to open by 1970. The Field of Dreams had a long and storied history in our community. Why spend MM bond money to rebuild it somewhere else?
As I dug into the MM bond, I became even more convinced. The bond measure itself, the short one paragraph text you see in the voter guide had no mention of a baseball field or even fields of any sort – and (as I expected) it made clear bond funds could only be used for school facilities. I saw nothing there that gave me pause.
What about the bond resolution – the lengthy document that’s a laundry list of projects on which the district can legitimately spend bond money, organized and categorized by district school. That resolution listed 144 bullet points of specific permissible projects across 9 district schools. I read through them all, and not one of those bullet points mentioned baseball or building a baseball field. There were 14 specific project bullets listed for Torrey Hills, and of those there was only one that mentioned playfields at all. It allowed the district to: “Repair or upgrade play structures/fields for improved student safety.”
I was convinced that repairing or upgrading fields for improved student safety – even under the broadest possible stretch of the English language – doesn’t allow you to go from a simple grass field without even an infield, to spending $1M on a new baseball diamond with dugouts and backstops, for club baseball.
Likewise, I looked at the Heights’ list of projects and there was no permission to spend bond money removing the fields from Del Mar Heights. Of the 12 project bullets specific to Del Mar Heights, again only one mentioned playfields at all and it said exactly the same thing we were told on Torrey Hills: “Repair or upgrade play structures/fields for improved student safety.” Nothing about using our tax dollars to close down the historic 50-year Field of Dreams.
In fact, every single district school had this exact same boilerplate regarding their fields.
Convinced, I trotted off to the December 3, 2019 meeting of the Citizens Oversight Committee for the MM bond – the MM finances police – and divulged my view that the MM bond didn’t authorize a baseball field, as best I could in the allotted 3 minutes.
In response to my comment, one committee member asked the Committee Chair (who is employed by an Orange County law firm that contributed to the MM bond campaign): “Is there anything in here (the bond resolution) that has anything to do with the little league baseball field?” In response, the Chair pointed to exactly the same bullet point above that I’d previously concluded wouldn’t stretch far enough: “repair or upgrade the field for improved student safety.” (Anslow 12.3.2019)
According to him: if you have a gopher, you can get a $1M baseball field.
I tried not to judge, for I had learned from watching Caddyshack never to underestimate the damage that even one solitary gopher could do.
But even if you put aside the field itself – I was still having a hard time understanding how the baseball facilities for little league fit into improved student safety and qualified as school facilities – and both of these were necessary hurdles to jump before spending MM bond money.
In response to one of my frequent investigative moods, I’d previously sent a public records request to the district, asking them for all documents relating to little league or moving the fields, including written communications between them and little league officials – thinking maybe DMLL itself chipped in for those facilities. But even after persistent pushing from me, the district said there were no written communications of any sort with DMLL regarding the baseball field. None, not even text messages or calendar appointments for scheduled meetings with DMLL.
In the end, I just didn’t have enough information to work with, and the people charged with the responsibility for second-guessing these expenditures didn’t seem bothered by it. [But see the Epilogue below for the questionable situation created by the Committee Chair.]
If I hadn’t been absolutely sure from the MM bond promotional literature that the baseball field was on the up-and-up, I’d probably have continued to hunt:
3. UNFAIR AND UNEQUAL TRADE FOR DEL MAR
This argument comes only from the Del Mar side of Interstate 5.
True – bad recreational playfield trade for Del Mar, unequal exchange, inadequate substitute. The kids in particular get shafted further from our already atrocious park situation in Del Mar. I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere, not only about the loss of our Field of Dreams but about our what DMUSD itself now concedes is a loss of 2.1 acres of total playspace at the Heights (in fact, it’s actually more).
It’s no answer that one particular private baseball club came out even, or maybe even ahead, being just one particular sport. Community play overall got the shaft – with a reduction by more than 50% in all our fields (more than 2 acres on the grass playfields alone).
But on the bright side, Del Mar will get a new school to replace an aging one that last underwent extensive campus building modernization in the year 2000 ($2.13M).
While none in the rest of the district will be jealous of our district-smallest fields and blacktop, plenty will be agog at our spacious new trophy school that is truly worthy of Del Mar’s name: in the main building 27’ ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows with spectacular western Torrey Pines Reserve and Pacific Ocean views, expansive indoor collaboration spaces; and in other buildings 30-classroom capacity that, if ever needed, can flex to accommodate an extra 200 students beyond today’s school population, for a total of 700. It will surely become the district’s flagship edifice. According to Trustees, It will also make a great wedding venue – Rafner: “I would love to have my daughter get married in that MUR” 11.20.2019 and Wooden: “That’s a wedding ceremony type of facility” 12.18.2019 – with improved catering facilities and extra parking for events. It could be a revenue generator for DMUSD – the latest micro trend.
Truth be told, the outdoor play spaces are only a part of the education equation, and we were told that the extra fields we sought to keep had “no benefit from an education and child development perspective” (Delehanty 10.23.2019). Moreover, they serve as a shared community resource only when a school district opens the school gates and invites us in, certainly not when they lock the gates and pay private police to keep us out.
CONCLUSION (SEE BUDGET BLOWOUT EPILOGUE FURTHER BELOW)
A while back I wrote another post, urging DMUSD to step up the plate and stop their illegal secret meetings in violation of California’s foundational Brown Act. While they continue to sit the bench on that one, they definitely did deliver on the new $1M Torrey Hills baseball field.
It’s a stunning field. Go check it out.
And as always, please share this post with your friends and others who might have interest.
Stay safe and healthy – and kick your kids out of the house for play, if you can!
EPILOGUE: THE BASEBALL BUDGET BLOWOUT
At the September DMUSD board meeting, the final baseball field was unwrapped and the price was revealed, sort of. We were shown some pictures and the following slide, which sounded like good news – coming in $65K under budget. As DMUSD likes to say: “Controlling costs has been the priority for the Board.” (Halpern 1.22.2020)
The September slide above is true – but in a fairly limited kind of way.
As you can see below, the budget in May 2020 was $550,000, then it ballooned in August 2020 to $993,048 – an 80% budget increase. A month later, they came in 7% under that 80% increase.
Is that under budget?
Unfortunately, the total field price reported to the public in the Del Mar Times (which they got straight from DMUSD) did not even include all three cost components of the new field. Instead, DMUSD omitted the architectural fees and the “other project costs” that bump up the field price by more than $133,000.
The total cost of the field – assuming DMUSD didn’t run over budget on the architectural and other fees (how would we know?) – was $928,000 plus interest.
You might think this type of detailed information should be readily available to the public, since it is an expenditure of public funds. But it is not posted on dmusd.org or on the Bond Oversight Committee sub-page hosted by DMUSD. You have to work to get it.
One final point on taxpayer bond money. The Citizen’s Oversight Committee is required by law to oversee the MM bond finances – independently of the district, to insure real oversight. Earlier, I mentioned the Committee Chair – the one whose firm donated money to the district in the MM bond campaign to help ensure MM passed.
Well, he’s not a an actual citizen. He’s a paid DMUSD consultant who drives down from Orange County to run the oversight meetings. He’s the one that uses “we” when talking about who wrote the bond, the one who district leadership installed to run the “citizen” committee, the one who provided the by-laws to constrain the scope of committee review, the one that answers committee member questions about how the committee should do their oversight – he’s the leader and the guidepost (even though, surprisingly, he’s not mentioned on the district’s oversight committee website page).
He’s the one who said he’s going to continue as Chair “until you forcibly remove me and carry me away” and “I’ll stay until you throw me out.” (Anslow 12.3.2020)
Curiously, under California law it’s forbidden to have the fox guard the chicken coop. To insure independent oversight: “A vendor, contractor, or consultant of the school district or community college district shall not be appointed to the citizens’ oversight committee.” (Education Code section 15282)
But that, my friends, is flour for a different baker. I have cooked enough.
Please forward this email to friends and others that may care about preserving outdoor play spaces for kids.