A Southern California firm has been hired to craft a facilities master plan to guide the Merced City School District in planning for future growth.
Board of Education members voted 4-1 Tuesday night to pay the Irvine-based Dolinka Group $132,000 to come up with strategies to build new schools where they are needed and upgrade existing campuses, some of which are about 50 years old.
Board member Gene Stamm voted against hiring Dolinka, saying the district could have found a consultant in the San Joaquin Valley that would have charged less. He said he isn't opposed to conducting a facilities master plan and Dolinka's work is very good, but the firm charges "big city rates."
"We are the keeper of the trust," Stamm said. The master plan will be paid from developer fees the district collects.
Board member Susan Walsh disagreed, saying the district needs to hire the very best it can get.
"We have waited a long time to do this," Walsh said. "There's never a good time. The city is growing and changing. We've got to develop a plan that takes care of that."
Walsh said the district is busing thousands of students around town because schools are not in the right places. She said the new master plan, replacing a 2001 document, will have to include input from community groups, parents and teachers.
Board President Adam Cox said the new master plan will help identify which schools are underutilized.
"We definitely have a number of older schools, and we need to make sure we keep schools safe," Cox said. "It is important for us to remember Merced is growing and identify in which direction Merced is growing."
Board member Darrell Cherf said the district didn't get any planning offers from the Merced area and the master plan is something that needs to be pursued. The district used the Dolinka firm before to justify developer fee assessments.
"Planning for the future is critical," Cherf said. "It's a good investment of our money."
Cherf said the district doesn't have any property in the Loughborough Drive-Fahrens Park area to build a school.
Stamm said more facilities are needed in eastern Merced to serve "unhoused" students, pupils who live in certain areas where there are no schools.
Seven of the district's schools, Burbank, Franklin, Fremont, Givens, Muir, Sheehy and Wright, are old and will need to be upgraded. Stamm is not sure the district will be able to afford major capital expenses down the road.
One of the facility master plan's four focal points is maintaining equality at district facilities. Other key subjects are how to house student enrollment in the future, provide support facilities to accommodate new enrollment and provide financial advice for funding new schools.
Walsh said planners can determine which of the district's campuses might not be up to snuff. She said the district has put substantial amounts of money into refurbishing older facilities.
"We have hundreds of unhoused students between Highway 59 and North Yosemite Avenue," Walsh said. "We have got to develop a plan to take care of that."
Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran conceded district schools are at different ages and said it's important older campuses be renovated and kept up to par.
The Dolinka Group has worked with more than 250 school districts, community colleges and county offices of education in facilities master planning.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.