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Merced County school projects advanced as budget worries lingered in 2011

Budgets and buildings seemed to dominate the 2011 educational landscape around Merced.

Dire predictions of funding cutbacks last spring didn't materialize -- but school district leaders are keeping a nervous eye on Sacramento, where state budget "triggers" may mean cutbacks in the next school year.

The Merced Union High School District adopted an $81.6 million budget for the school year that runs through June. The budget included cuts of $13 per unit of average daily attendance.

Last spring, district trustees, on a split vote, approved continuing with construction of a new high school campus in North Merced, despite stagnant enrollment projections. The district is using $35 million in state funding that would expire if not used soon. School bond funds make up the rest of the financing picture.

El Capitan High School, named after the predecessor campus for Merced High School in the late 1950s and early 1960s, is an $87 million complex visible from G Street and Bellevue Road. It will be open in the fall of 2013, starting with freshmen and sophomores.

Other 2011 highlights for the high school district, Superintendent Scott Scambray said, included completion of a $15 million construction project at Livingston High School and the new Veterans Stadium project at Golden Valley High School. The stadium will be used for Golden Valley and Merced High athletic events.

Veteran Southern California educator-administrator Leonard Kahn was named the new assistant superintendent for business, replacing Raynee Daley, and Merced High School scored 800 on the Academic Performance Index state testing program for the first time. It was the only county high school to hit the 800-point threshold.

At the Merced City School District, last spring's budget discussions included prospective layoffs of a number of temporary teachers hired under grants due to run out. Ultimately, the budget picture stabilized and the retirement of two dozen teachers meant those initially laid off were hired back, Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran said.

Also among the 2011 highlights for the city school district were the completion of the $5 million joint-use gymnasium complex at Rivera Middle School and construction of a Professional Development Center at Chenoweth Elementary School.

Kris Cavallero, the district's chief financial officer, said a $78 million budget was approved for the current school year. Gov. Jerry Brown came up with $4 billion in revenues, saving the budget.

"We will be OK for the current fiscal year," Cavallero said. "We are using $1.9 million in federal jobs money to help save jobs and 20 to 30 retirees helped save teaching positions. We ended the year with $15 million in reserves."

At the Merced County Office of Education, 2011 saw veteran educator Steve Gomes become superintendent of schools in early January, replacing the retiring Lee Andersen.

Valley Community School's $19 million continuation school campus opened in Atwater last fall. The MCOE Foundation also was established in 2011 to benefit educational causes.

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

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