Projects for Merced area high schools prioritized

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comJune 17, 2013 

Given declining enrollment, sinking property values and limited bonding capacity, the likelihood of a new high school being built in the near future is slim, Merced Union High School District trustees noted during a workshop this week on facility needs.

Were money available, new gymnasiums at Merced and Atwater high schools rank about the highest on the board's wish list.

During a three-hour study session, trustees looked over a 5-year-old list of projects left over from Measure M bond funding. Their "homework" in the weeks ahead is to prioritize building needs, board President Ida Johnson said.

Merced and Atwater high schools were built in the late 1950s; new gyms are projected to cost $4.6 million each. Also on the 2008 wish list was a $5 million bus barn and yard.

"This will be interesting," Trustee Will Snyder III said. "There are a lot of things we want to do, but we've got to make the money go around evenly; that's the hardest thing to do."

Gyms, infrastructure

Snyder said the Merced and Atwater gyms are badly needed, and that there is a lot of infrastructure that needs attention.

"It will be interesting to see how things pan out," Snyder said.

Trustee Dora Crane said no new or big items were identified as possible additions to an updated five-year plan. As trustees refine the priorities, they will come back to the board for further discussion.

Johnson said it's time to update the five-year facilities plan. She agreed that the gyms should be next. When the University Community housing-commercial project is built near UC Merced, then a new high school will be needed in that area.

In 2009, the district bought 35 acres at Tyler Road and Gerard Avenue cooperatively with the city of Merced, with a joint-use recreational facility in mind at some point in the future.

Trustee Dave Honey said he's not willing to take risks regarding future building plans until he makes sure the money is in hand.

"It will be a long time before we need another school," Honey said. "It will be quite a few years before we have crowded schools again. We can't sell bonds because the value of homes has gone down. We have to wait until the assessed valuation comes back or new homes are built."

Superintendent Scott Scambray said the assessed valuation of properties within the district fell 22 percent over 3½ years. When the district is able to sell bonds again, there is a capability to sell $69 million worth, but it can't reach more than $30 per $100,000 in assessed valuation.

Scambray agreed that it may be years before any schools are built.

Leonard Kahn, assistant superintendent for business services, is anxious to see what money is available from the passage of Proposition 39 in the November election. That proposition requires multistate businesses to pay income taxes based on their percentage of sales in California.

Looking to Prop. 39

It was estimated that the proposition would raise $1 billion in revenues annually. The money is supposed to be split between projects boosting energy efficiency and school districts.

Kahn said one scenario has school districts receiving Proposition 39 money based on average daily attendance figures. That would mean $660,000 a year locally for five years. The other, less-hopeful scenario has school districts vying for funds through competitive grants.

The district is looking at replacing about 230 heating and cooling units that are more than 20 years old. If any money is left over from heating and cooling projects, the need for new light fixtures could be examined, Kahn said.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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