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Bond approval would mean progress for Merced schools

In the far rear of the Golden Valley High School campus, tucked between the tennis courts and a Dumpster, is Jayson Sargent's geometry classroom.

"It's a long-distance phone call from here to the office," Sargent joked.

Sargent's is one of 21 portable classrooms at the Golden Valley campus and 90 in the Merced Union High School District.

His colleague, Cara Birmingham teaches world history a few buildings away in another portable. "It just doesn't breed continuity with the school," Birmingham said. "You have the school there and the addition here."

Her classroom building is brown, the one next to it tan, and across the way the buildings are white.

"It's pretty hodge-podgey back here," she said.

When class bells ring, hundreds of students pour from the portables into one hallway. "During passing periods, the hallways are just too crowded," Principal Craig Chavez said. "It leads to safety issues and supervision issues, among other problems."

District officials say it is conditions like this that will be fixed if voters pass Measure M on Nov. 4. Measure M is a $149.5 million bond sale that will go toward funding $210 million in projects at every school in the district. The state would chip in the difference.

The bond measure would fund a new high school campus in Merced, near the corner of Farmland Road and G Street.

"The bond measure will definitely provide some overcrowding relief," Sargent said. "And some new technology in the classrooms will make information more accessible to students."

Other things will be fixed too, such as replacing the aging portable classrooms at Atwater and Buhach Colony; constructing new classrooms at Livingston High; and upgrading facilities at the school district's bus yard.

The effect on learning

Inside Sargent's roughly 24-by-50-foot corridor-like classroom are five neat and tight rows of 40 desks. A poster on the wall says "Give results, not excuses." That would be easier if all of his students could fully see the blackboard. "The kids can become disengaged because they have an obstructed or poor view of the board," Sargent said.

Because of the room's dimensions, it's impossible to reconfigure the desks, so students sometimes stand near the blackboard to take their class notes. "The vast majority of students have been affected," Chavez said of the portables. "If they don't have a class there this year, they did some other year."

Golden Valley is over its intended capacity by about 400 students. Merced High School is squeezing in an additional 575 students. Every high school in the district needs more classrooms. "The research is pretty clear," School Board Member Tim O'Neill said. "The smaller the high school, the higher the achievement."

The effect on living

Friday night football games, Wednesday afternoon skateboard club get-togethers, school newspaper reporting meetings. These are the activities that make up high school. But as student populations grow, the percentage of students able to participate decreases. "You can only have one football team," O'Neill said.

District Superintendent Scott Scambray is fond of citing the stat that only 2 percent of dropouts were involved in extracurricular activities at their schools. While a bit of an overstatement, it's a doctrine he seriously believes. "Students in activities achieve higher, even if they have less time on their hands," he said.

The Afterschool Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy organization, reports that students involved with extracurricular activities feel more connected, supported and safe at their schools. They are also less likely to commit crime and more likely to stay in school, according to various studies.

The overcrowding and lack of facilities also deadens parent involvement at some Merced schools, the leaders say. At Golden Valley, there's no space for parents to watch after-school tennis matches anymore -- Sargent's portable is one of the buildings taking up space where the viewing area once stood. Water polo parents at Buhach Colony can't just pop into their child's practice. With no pool, the teams have to travel to Livingston to practice.

Sargent said sports and other activities wield important results in the classroom. "The same lessons and values I teach out at the track are the same lessons and values they need to use in the classroom," he said.

In this credit crunch?

It's tough to ask the voters of Merced to pass a bond, considering the current fiscal crises at the local, state and national levels, Deputy Superintendent Diane Hockersmith said.

But it needs to be done. "That's the California funding model," Scambray said. "We don't have another option. This is it. Or we could not build schools."

Carmen Thompson, an executive assistant at School Services of California, said many other districts are facing the same dilemma. There are 96 school bond measures on Nov. 4 ballots across the state ,totaling about $22.5 billion. "There's just no other way to do it," Scambray added.

If passed, the bond measure will cost homeowners in the district -- the cities of Merced, Atwater and Livingston -- $30 per $100,000 of assessed home value a year. "Having good schools is going to protect those housing values," O'Neill asserted.

And good school facilities might just help occupy empty homes out there, too. "We want the community to fill up the houses," Scambray said. "It is a much more positive environment when the houses are filled."

When people are looking to move to Merced, the first thing they look at is the schools, district officials said.

In another bid to sweeten the deal, the district's board passed a resolution that would require the hired contractor to use Merced's resources for at least 50 percent of the labor and costs.

The new high school is expected to cost anywhere between $77 million and $93 million.

But that price tag could go up. "If we wait a few years, this project list is going to cost $20 million more," Scambray said.

Clovis' cash cow is schools

Scambray says it's evident a school bond will help the city's economy if you just look down the road at other cities. "Take a look at Clovis and Fresno," Scambray said. "The fortunes of the cities parallel the fortunes of the schools."

Since 1986, the Clovis Unified School District has secured more than $453 million in school bond measures. Those funds have been used to build 24 new schools in the 46-school district. Scambray admits he was "an outsider looking in" when he taught in Fresno from 1985 to 1994, but believes growth in the city of Clovis is due in part to a 35-year run of successful bond measures there.

Clovis' current superintendent, Terry Bradley, is hesitant to draw a causal connection, but said that even in today's economy, the homes in his district hold a higher value than similar homes in other districts.

Educational achievement is higher too. The academic performance index score is 684 in Fresno and 841 in Clovis. "Now, do we want to be a Fresno? Or do we want to be a Clovis?" Scambray recently asked education and community leaders at a luncheon.

Merced Union High School District's most recent experience with a bond measure is the 2006 ballot item that failed by less than 3 percentage points of the vote. The majority of residents in Atwater voted no, a district study found in the weeks after the election.

"In Atwater, it is very, very hard to pass any type of monetary bond," Mayor Joan Faul said. "We hope, though, that we can get enough citizens that have children and grandchildren that they want in safe schools to turn out on Election Day."

This time around, they concentrated on including projects that specifically benefited the Atwater community, Hockersmith said. They hope the strategy works. "Knock on wood, this thing passes," Scambray said. "But if it doesn't we are going to have to start busing kids from Merced to Atwater."

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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