A rendering of the new K-8 school from the PUSD website.

by Joanne Faryon | inewsource

A rendering of the new K-8   school from the PUSD website.
A rendering of the new K-8 school from the PUSD website.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Jan. 23rd to correct the name of the school from Design 39 to Design39Campus.

A group of Poway Unified School District parents is petitioning the school board because their kids won’t be allowed to attend a brand new school that’s less than a 20-minute walk from their homes. At issue is whether those parents paid for the construction of the new school.

The kindergarten-to-8th grade school, Design39Campus. is the 39th school in the district — the last one Poway Unified plans to build.

The $82 million-school is under construction at the corner of Lone Quail Road and Camino Del Norte, an area chock-a-block with new developments in the northeast section of the city of San Diego.

Design39 is more than just a fancy new building. It’s designed with a different approach to learning. Think of it as the “Google” of elementary and middle schools.

“In the blue space, you’ll see this is a collaboration space. This is actually wide open to the rest of the areas,” states a video about the new school on its website.

A rendering of the interior space of Design 39 from the PUSD website.
A rendering of the interior space of Design 39 from the PUSD website.

Dominic and JoAnna Munafo live less than a mile from the new school. They have four kids ranging in age from 3 to 10. The Munafos were excited when they learned about the new school and its teaching philosophy. They even attended planning meetings with the new principal.

“It wasn’t until Dec. 21, just before the two-week winter break, that we were informed that we wouldn’t be able to go to Design39,” said Dominic Munafo.

The Munafos aren’t the only ones. Their entire neighborhood of about 60 homes was told their kids can’t go to the school because they didn’t pay for it.

The school is being funded entirely with Mello-Roos tax dollars. Those are extra property taxes homeowners in new developments pay for roads and schools.

A school district or even a city government can create a Mello-Roos tax district, called a Community Facilities District, or CFD, and charge homeowners Mello-Roos. The extra tax bill ranges anywhere from an extra $100 a year to many thousands.

Poway Unified has many such districts, which charged homeowners a total of more than $42 million in extra taxes last year.

The Munafos live in CFD No. 9. They pay about  $2,300 a year in Mello-Roos taxes.

The school district told them their Mello-Roos dollars are being used to pay off construction costs for Del Norte High School, which opened in 2009, and not Design39. So their kids can’t attend.

“There was no transparency to the process. We were simply left off the list of CFDs that were eligible for Design39. And there was no explanation. There was no plan. There was no outreach to the parents,” Munafo said.

District officials say they are following the law, giving priority to families whose tax dollars directly contributed to the construction of the school.

“It’s easy to understand their frustration. However, those Mello-Roos dollars have not paid for any Design39 seats. And therefore we cannot allow students from those CFDs to attend,” said Jessica Wakefield, Director of Communications with Poway Unified.

“It’s against government code,” she said.

Thirty percent of the school’s seats are being saved for neighborhoods currently under construction in a newly formed tax district, CFD No. 15. The district expects 1,600 new homes to be built, generating 550 school-aged kids. Once homeowners move in they’ll be subject to Mello-Roos taxes too.

Design39 is being built to accommodate a total of 1,400 students.

The Mello-Roos Community Facilities Act says parents who pay the extra taxes to build a new school should get priority to attend the school. The law also allows the district to make exceptions for things such as achieving ethnic or racial diversity. Poway Unified can also allow the children of school staff to attend the school, even if they don’t live in the neighborhood.

District officials are currently considering such a request from Design39 staff.

Kimberley Beatty is Poway’s newest school board trustee. She’s had concerns about how Mello-Roos dollars are spent since she took office more than a year ago.

”I could see it would be somewhat awkward for sort of one island that isn’t allowed to go to school 39, and the surrounding neighborhoods are going to that school,” Beatty said.

“There are community policy reasons why we should look at this and create something that is responsive to the community,” she said.

The district needs an additional $40 million to finish building the school. It’s going to issue municipal bonds to raise the cash, and pay the interest on those bonds with Mello-Roos taxes from 10 CFDs, including CFD No. 9 — Dominic and Joanna Munafo’s tax district.

The Munafos are baffled by how the district can promise their tax dollars to investors yet exclude their children from the school.

“It would therefore appear that the bonds, in their current form, could not have been secured without CFD No. 9 funds,” the Munafos wrote in their petition letter to the school board.

The district says the Munafos’ taxes are just being used as collateral to get a lower interest rate.

Dominic Munafo boils the convoluted financing scheme down to an issue of fairness for him and his family.

“Access to Design39 is really about equal opportunity. The neighborhood schools and the neighborhood children should have access to the neighborhood school that’s closest to them,” he said.

The Poway Unified School Board meets Tuesday at 6 pm. It’s expected to vote on the final financing plan for Design39. The Munafos plan to present their petition asking the board to let their neighborhood kids attend the school.

Joanne Faryon is a freelance reporter and former inewsource and KPBS reporter.