School board considers adding elementary classes to Rivera Middle School

There are no elementary schools in the northwest portion of Merced and students who live in the Fahrens Park area are bused elsewhere. But that may change in about 18 months.

Merced City School District Board of Education members held a 90-minute study session Tuesday night to discuss plans to make Rivera Middle School a kindergarten through eighth-grade school.

The board may give final approval for the plan to add kindergarten through fifth grades to the Rivera Middle School campus at its Feb. 11 meeting. If that happens, three new buildings will be built to accommodate kindergarten through second-grade students, Greg Spicer, associate superintendent for administrative services, said Wednesday.

Board member Adam Cox said the entire conversion of Rivera Middle School to the K-8 configuration may cost $8.2 million. There is $6.8 million left in the Measure S general obligation bond passed in 2004 to build the new classroom wings for the primary grades.

“I think it’s nice to see it all come together,” Cox said. “I still have concerns over funding and the timing is a concern. We’d like to move forward with the Rivera construction before a June bond issue.”

Board member Susan Walsh said the district can’t wait any longer with the Rivera project.

“It’s an exciting time,” Walsh said. “What a change! I’m delighted we will be building instead of worrying about cuts. We need to move forward and build a new school at Rivera. I’m confident we’re going to do that.”

Associate Principal Ken Testa has been designated an administrator on special assignment to oversee the Rivera conversion project. He said the district is fulfilling a promise made during the Measure S bond campaign to locate an elementary school in the northwest portion of the city.

“It’s an exciting place we’re at from my point of view,” Testa said. “It will be much more than just buildings. It will be a place for the community and its families.”

Testa said hopefully a functional, safe and efficient school site will be created at Rivera. He said the new buildings will be easy to maintain and not extravagant.

Testa said there are K-8 school configurations throughout California and the United States. The Kings Canyon Unified School District, which serves outlying Fresno and Reedley areas, has three newer K-8 campuses. The Merced City School District has 13 elementary schools serving kindergarten through fifth grades and four middle schools with sixth- through eighth-grade students.

While it’s potentially a new, foreign and daunting challenge to create a K-8 campus, considerable thought will be given to separating the elementary and middle school campuses at Rivera. Still Testa sees opportunities for mentoring and shared staff development between the adjoining schools.

Rivera Principal Sergio Mendes told board members a combined Rivera School likely would have nearly 1,300 students. He said the K-8 conversion is manageable and the school staff is prepared to tackle the project.

“There’s an eagerness to see how this plan will develop,” Mendes said. “The board asked about bell schedules and use of current facilities. I reiterated it was ‘doable’ and we are more than ready to go forward.”

A new gymnasium was finished at Rivera in 2011; WLC Architects of Folsom prepared plans several years ago to build the gym, add the primary grade classrooms and do campus modernization. These plans were approximately 90 percent complete when the recession dawned and improvements were put on hold. But the plans can be updated for current use.

Spicer said a key question is how quickly the state Department of School Architecture could approve the updated Rivera plans. Once that’s done, hopefully by June, the kindergarten through second-grade buildings could be put out to bid and existing buildings converted to house third- through sixth-grade students.

Depending on timing, the reconfigured Rivera Middle School could open in August 2015, Spicer said. It is believed the middle school could stay open while the new buildings are built and others are converted to elementary school use.

The kindergarten through sixth-grade buildings would be located on the west side of the Rivera campus and the seventh and eighth grades on the east side of the site, Spicer said. Rivera Middle School is located on Buena Vista Drive near R Street.

Spicer said the $6.8 million in Measure S funds will cover the cost of the three new buildings. Bonds and state funds are eyed for modernization, new library and administration buildings. The district’s recently adopted long-range facilities master plan calls for modernization at all 17 district campuses over a 10- to 15-year period.

“This is the beginning of a process,” Spicer said. He said the majority of the costs for the architectural designs with WLC have already been paid but modernization and expansion plans were put on hold about four years ago when the economy soured and state funds diminished.

Board member Gene Stamm was pleased with Tuesday’s study session. He’s hoping voters will pass a bond measure in June that will help with the modernization needs.

“We’re going to go forward with it,” Stamm said. “It’s already in the front door. I’m very happy and encouraged by it.”

Testa said the Rivera project likely will be handled in phases and some of the construction can be handled in the summer when students are gone. Details such as site work, utilities, playfields, fencing and security measures, and cafeteria facilities need to be addressed.