A plan to expand Peggy Heller Elementary School in Atwater by having the school district purchase part of a city park is on track to be finalized by the end of the year, public meeting agendas show.
Atwater Elementary School District officials say the expansion is needed to make room for middle schoolers amid a growing student population in the city even though some parents and residents have urged them to seek other options.
The City Council and the school board have agreed on the sale of more than 4 acres of Manuel Bairos Park for $61,798, said Scott McBride, the city’s community development director. Actions scheduled for this month and December are expected to make the sale final.
The district plans to add a wing of six classrooms, a gym and sports fields to the campus, turning the school into a K-8 facility. Officials predict sharp spikes in enrollment in the coming years, and the addition of seventh and eighth grades at Peggy Heller will relieve crowding at Mitchell Senior, the district’s only middle school, according to Superintendent Sandra Schiber, who spoke at City Council meetings last month.
The school board approved the sale agreement in September.
When the issue went before the Atwater City Council on Oct. 10, council members voted 3-2 against the sale. Mayor Jim Price and Councilmen Larry Bergman and Brian Raymond formed the majority vote. Councilmen Joe Rivero and James Vineyard voted in favor of the sale.
But at the next meeting, Price brought the issue back to the council members, who unanimously approved the sale 4-0, with Raymond absent. Bergman said he changed his mind after speaking with the superintendent, who answered his concerns, including having the school and district cooperate on a traffic study and other issues.
Residents and parents at the City Council meetings spoke against the sale. Parents said the school district had other options, such as sending middle school students to Bellevue School, which is a K-8 campus. Others voiced concerns about the city’s general plan and whether it was wise for the city to decrease park space.
“You should not be selling our parks to help with negligent spending on their (the school district’s) end,” Kellie Kennedy, whose children attend Thomas Olaeta Elementary, told the council Oct. 10.
City and school district officials, however, believe the sale will benefit all parties. The district plans to allow access to the new sports fields – two soccer fields and a baseball diamond – and the gym for city and public use. It also plans to continue using the name Manuel Bairos, which honors a longtime city park superintendent.
“Our opinion is this is going to add to what Manuel Bairos Park is,” Schiber said at the meeting. “I think it will enhance what we have now.”
The sale would bump Peggy Heller’s acreage up to about 14 acres, and the expansion would allow the school to serve up to 200 seventh- and eighth-grade students, Schiber said.
Rivero noted Heller was a K-8 school previously, but budget cuts during the recent recession forced the district to shrink it to an elementary school. Rivero said the expansion would fulfill the intent of the school as a K-8 campus.
“That’s what it was intended to be, and that’s what it should continue to be,” he said.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477