Sierra Foothill School District Ponders Funding for Multi-Million Dollar Upgrades
It’s been more than three decades since any substantial work was done on Sierra Unified’s junior/senior high school. Its “newest” school, Foothill, opened as a middle school 25 years ago and now is the district’s sole elementary.
In recognition that the existing schools are in need of modernization, Sierra Unified officials are in the midst of an ongoing effort to figure out what the needs are now and 10 years or more into the future — and how to pay for them.
This week the board reviewed a multimillion-dollar project list that includes dreams for a new football stadium and other high school improvements and heard from consultants about options for putting a school bond measure on the 2022 ballot.
Board President Connie Schlaefer noted at Monday’s special meeting that taxpayers in the mountain communities northeast of Fresno will be likelier to vote in favor of adding to their tax burden if the district sells off property such as the old Sierra Elementary School site unless the district develops plans to use it.
Sierra Unified used to have two elementary schools, a middle school, and Sierra High. But when enrollments gradually started declining over the past two decades, the district turned Sierra High into a junior/senior high school and converted Foothills into a TK-6 elementary.
The district’s enrollment today is about half the size of the enrollment at the turn of the century.
Planning Process Helps Set Priorities
Superintendent Alan Harris told GV Wire℠ that when the district decided to develop a long-range facilities master plan, it provided an opportunity for trustees and community members to propose projects.
One from the plan’s community steering committee was to convert Sierra Elementary into an “experiential” school, similar to Clovis Unified’s Sierra Outdoor School in Sonora.
On Monday, the trustees decided not to move forward with that plan, but instead to focus on existing needs and plan for the next 10 years.
The facilities project presented to the School Board totals more than $200 million, but Harris cautioned that there is some duplication on the list, such as building a new athletic facility as well as modernizing the existing gym. Depending on the priorities that the trustees and community set, it would be either/or but not both, he said.
Just taking care of the basic needs of the junior high/high school is estimated to cost more than $30 million, Harris said.
Bond Measure On Tap?
To tackle those needs — and to take advantage of matching construction funding from the state — Sierra Unified may need to ask the community to consider a bond issue in 2022.
Although the district’s recent track record for bond measure is 0-3, a consultant told trustees on Monday that the work taking place now to identify the district’s needs and the process they’re engaging in would provide enough time to inform and educate area residents.
Trustees expressed some concern that the majority of the area’s residents are older than 55 and no longer have kids in school, so they may not be willing to take on a new property tax.
But at the same time, no one yet knows whether more parents who are able to work remotely in the post-pandemic world will choose a more rural environment for their families.
Ready for Next 100 Years
Sierra Unified is continuing to move forward with expanded education opportunities. Last fall the district debuted a new homeschooling option, Sierra@Home, that gives students the ability to learn from home and still participate in school activities such as sports. Harris said the district has made fast progress toward accreditation, which he expects could happen by the end of the year.
Sierra High students can participate in a wider range of academics and extracurricular programs than students at larger comprehensive high schools, he said.
“Our size allows us to really personalize our education and provide more opportunities for kids than they would get other places,” Harris said. “You go to our high school, you could be in dual enrollment, AP classes, play soccer and be in band and be in the ag program. You don’t have to choose just one.”
With Sierra High preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary, he said, district officials are excited to be mapping out the road ahead: “As a community and as a board, we have a chance to vision the next hundred years and and really start building the future for our kids.”