NMUSD Moves Forward with School Fencing, Despite Objections

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Students protest the removal of trees from Ensign Intermediate School.
— Photo by Daniel Langhorne ©

The Newport-Mesa Unified District Board of Education on Tuesday awarded a $5 million construction contract for security fences around Ensign Intermediate School and Corona del Mar High and Middle schools, despite the objections of about two dozen students, parents, and neighbors.

The school board voted 4-2, with Michelle Barto and Ashley Anderson in opposition, to ratify an agreement with TELACU Construction Management. Board vice president Karen Yelsey was absent.

Students and parents held up enlarged photos of trees that are scheduled to be removed and replaced with new trees to make way for the construction, which will include adding two parking lots for staff and visitors and a drop-off/pick-up lane. Some students argued the mature trees help capture carbon dioxide and that their removal would contribute to climate change.

The district plans to remove 13 trees from Ensign. Two trees slated for removal fell over during winter break. At least 15 new trees will be planted as part of the project, district spokesperson Annette Franco said.

In the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn., the NMUSD school board contracted security experts to advise district staffers on how to retrofit open campuses. The initiative got a second wind two years ago after a deadly school in Parkland, Fla.

One of the consultants’ suggestions was to create a single point of entry that would obstruct potential shooters and other unauthorized individuals from walking onto campuses.

District leaders have also privatized creating safe walking and biking routes to and from schools.

Artist rendering of planned fence at Ensign Intermediate School.
— Art courtesy of NMUSD

“This is about safety. This isn’t about creating issues about global warming. It’s about making sure students are safe getting to school and away from school,” Superintendent Fred Navarro said.

Among the speakers’ gripes with the project was that they weren’t adequately informed about the scope of work or offered opportunities to provide input in advance of Tuesday’s vote.

School staff, parents, and neighbors were informed about this project and had various opportunities to provide input including a public meeting held Sept. 24. Fewer than 10 people attended that meeting, Franco said.

The school board approved the contract under several assurances from district staffers including:

  • At least two public meetings will be scheduled to educate community members about the upcoming construction and its timeline
  • Architectural plans for the project will be posted at nmusd.us by Feb. 14
  • Temporarily installing a large sign at Ensign with an image of the future fence
  • The school board’s policy committee will convene to re-examine the district’s policy for how it informs neighbors about planned construction.

As a school board member, Anderson was disappointed to learn district administrators decided to combine the Ensign and Corona del Mar projects under one request for bids, considering the projects’ differences. She was also dissatisfied that architectural plans were admitted from the staff report attached to Tuesday’s school board agenda.

“When we as a board don’t have that information the community certainly doesn’t have that information,” Anderson said.

Board President Martha Fluor pointed out that it was impossible to bifurcate the projects now that bids have been requested and a contractor selected.

School board member Vickie Snell said she felt very conflicted about awarding the construction contract after hearing public comments Tuesday. When asked if there would be a downside to pausing the fence project, assistant superintendent Tim Holcomb said district generally tries to avoid contract disputes but still might see blowback from backing out of a contract with a selected contractor.

“If this doesn’t go through and we don’t move forward we’re going to lose a lot of money,” Snell said.

Charles Klobe, a board member with Still Protecting Our Newport, said he was disappointed with the board’s apparent willingness to allow Navarro to act more like a chief executive officer than a superintendent who answers to elected representatives.

“We will make sure the city is engaged,” Klobe said. “There is a delta between what their staff said tonight and what we’ve directly heard from city staffers.”

A May 2018 school traffic stay commissioned by Newport Beach recommended a designated drop-off and pick-up area along the north side of Cliff Drive adjacent to the campus. It does not specifically call for the school district to build curb cuts and require motorists to drive onto school property to release or retrieve students.

“I would still argue that a dedicated drop-off/pick-up area could be accomplished by curb painting and signage on the street,” Klobe wrote in an email. “With the addition of the teachers parking lot to the north, there should be plenty of curb area available for this in the morning and afternoon.”

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