State funding cleared for special education wing at Merced elementary school

06/05/2014 7:47 PM

06/05/2014 7:49 PM

Through the intervention of two state legislators, the Merced County Office of Education’s plans to build a $2.1 million classroom wing for severely handicapped students at a local elementary school are moving forward after a lengthy delay.

State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, persuaded the School Allocations Board to reverse the earlier removal of MCOE plans from state funding, Steve Gomes, Merced County superintendent of schools, said.

Gomes said the Merced City School District Board Of Education will need to approve placing the 5,000-square-foot complex on the grounds of Joe Stefani Elementary School.

“We’re extremely excited, more like elated, to be able to have the facility for kids in the county,” Gomes said. “We didn’t think we would be able to get it done. This will provide a great facility for that part of the county.”

Susan Coston, assistant superintendent for special education at MCOE, said they hope to have the three-classroom wing open for the start of the 2015-16 school year. Thirty-six to 40 severely handicapped students could be served in the facility.

Some of the students have been served at the MCOE’s Schelby School complex in Livingston, which is about 40 years old. Having the new wing in the Franklin area of Merced will reduce transportation costs and provide a facility in the Merced area, she added.

“I’m excited at the wonderful opportunity we almost lost,” Coston said. “It could have been 10 years or longer to get the funding.”

Gomes praised Cannella and Gray for their assistance in getting the funding issue resolved. A combination of bureaucratic red tape, lack of state funding and procedural missteps resulted in the MCOE facility being taken off the funding list, he added.

The superintendent also praised Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, for his help in the matter.

“Their (Cannella, Gray) efforts helped us win the appeal,” Gomes said. He said Cannella and Gray care about Merced County and work to represent this area as best as they can.

Gray said he and Cannella forged a bipartisan coalition with the county and fought hard not to let red tape interfere with a project that would improve the lives of Merced’s special education students for generations.

Gray said the new expansion at Stefani School would be entirely state-funded and allow special education students to be integrated with peers. He said it took a month for the allocations board to reverse its course and free up funding for the project.

The new wing will include 1,442 square feet of therapy space, extra-large bathrooms and larger classrooms necessary to allow specialized therapy equipment and instructional materials.

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