New life for shuttered Mariposa County elementary school

School's back in session in Catheys Valley.

Or it will be, rather, when Mariposa County's first charter school opens in the schoolhouse closed earlier this year because of districtwide budget cuts.

When board members of the Mariposa County Unified School District made the painful decision to close the 132-year-old Catheys Valley Elementary School, parents and community members took matters into their own hands, eventually forming Sierra Foothill Charter School.

The school got the OK earlier this week from the Mariposa school district board members.

Jill Harry, chairwoman of the charter school's board, says the school will be open by August. "We looked at a number of options, and a charter school looked like the best way to go because it's free and open to everyone," Harry said.

The school will open for about 80 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, but organizers said they hope to eventually expand grade levels.

The Catheys Valley school, along with a campus in Greeley Hill, were closed in May as part of an effort to cut $400,000 from the district's budget. Of course, the opening of Sierra Foothill Charter School brings back those financial concerns for the Mariposa school district, which will no longer receive $5,200 per student from the state -- roughly $400,000.

Mariposa superintendent Aaron Rosander said the district worked with the charter school to ensure the financial impacts were kept to a minimum. "It was ultimately decided that it would be best to reach an agreement that would help to limit, even if only in some small way, the financial loss MCUSD will experience when the charter opens," he said, noting that the state education code doesn't allow the district to disapprove the charter based on financial concerns.

In exchange for use of the campus, the charter school will pay MCUSD $100,000 during its first year of operation and $75,000 each additional year, Rosander said.

While geared toward the children of Catheys Valley, the school can accept students from elsewhere -- and organizers do expect interest from parents in Merced County and beyond.

UC Merced support

Sierra Foothill's board includes about a half-dozen faculty and staff at UC Merced.

And that relationship will be an important part of the school's approach to education, according to Lara Kueppers, an environmental science professor and Catheys Valley resident.

"Rather than view it as a devastating loss, we decided to take an opportunity to build a school that would serve the community of Catheys Valley and build on the resources UC Merced is bringing to the region, building programs that encourage kids to go to college and offering research and training opportunities for teachers."

And the school, they hope, will extend UC Merced's positive impact into the foothills.