Finding the perfect site for an independent school on the South Coast is a nearly impossible task. Just ask the administration and supporters of any of the independent schools searching for a site. Yet after seven years of searching, Santa Barbara Middle School has pulled off a mission impossible.
“There are limited sites where zoning is permissible that are affordable, seismically safe, and appropriate to the neighborhood,” said Ron Werft, president and CEO of Cottage Health System and former president and member of the Santa Barbara Middle School Board of Trustees.
Werft should know; he speaks from experience.
Since 2003, Werft and more than 100 other SBMS supporters have been working tirelessly to secure a location for their beloved school. Santa Barbara Middle School’s current lease at the St. Anthony’s campus expires at the end of this school year.
Former SBMS parent Michael Jaffe has been heading up the site search.
“The only way we were going to come up with a perfect solution was if something extraordinary happened,” Jaffe said. “And it did.”
In June, SBMS parent and trustee Mimi deGruy brought together Head of School Brian McWilliams with Ernie and Pat Brooks, the owners of the former Jefferson Elementary School campus (currently occupied by Brooks Institute) at 1321 Alameda Padre Serra. Over coffee at IHOP, without lawyers or real-estate agents, the three sealed a deal on a 30‐year lease with the right of first refusal should the owners decide to sell the campus.
McWilliams said finding a true home for SBMS is nothing short of a miracle.
“At every turn this seemed like an impossible search, yet smart, dedicated people who care deeply for our school kept showing up to help us continue our search,” he said.
McWilliams estimates that over the seven‐year search, local professionals, alumni, and school supporters committed more than 16,000 volunteer hours and close to $2.4 million in pro bono professional services.
The SBMS site committee explored roughly 65 sites on the South Coast, sometimes working around the clock under strict deadlines, while juggling city codes and restrictions.
“It’s so appropriate that such an arduous journey resulted in this unbelievable, perfect solution,” Werft said. “It’s a true hero’s journey; much like getting the bike to the top of the mountain.”
Until the option to lease the Jefferson campus came along, the site committee was pursuing industrial warehouses and multiuse properties. Jaffe says these sites didn’t come close to filling the school’s wants and needs.
“The Jefferson campus meets all of our criteria,” he said. “It’s geographically proximate to our families, it has unused capacity should we decide to grow our programs, it has a lot of recreational space, and it offers ample parking.”
For Jaffe and the rest of the SBMS family, the long search is over, and the school has finally found its ideal home.
“I knew we were going to need something special to end up with the perfect site,” Jaffe said, “and that something turned out to be the extraordinary generosity of Ernie and Pat Brooks.”
Ernie Brooks in turn welcomes his new tenant with open arms.
“I believe in your mission and your focus on quality education in today’s changing world,” he said.
Santa Barbara Middle School will open its doors for student occupancy at the new site in the fall of 2011.
Santa Barbara Middle School now turns its focus to the challenge of raising $2.68 million by June to fund planned campus improvements that will allow the school to meet the ever‐demanding needs of the 21st-century student.
— Liz Dewell represents Santa Barbara Middle School.