Bond bucks shifted to middle schools

MIDDLE SCHOOL MODERNIZATION Rather than build a new middle school, Measure E bond money will go towards renovations for existing schools.

Gilroy school district leaders have decided to shift Measure E priorities from an immediate need to build a new elementary school to a more pressing issue of modernizing  Brownell and South Valley middle schools.

This change in plans comes after a Jan. 18 presentation by Gilroy Unified School District Asst. Supt. Alvaro Meza that showed an unexpected decline in enrollment from last year to the current school term, a low countywide birth rate trend over the last few years and rising school construction costs.

“We want to be the best stewards of our bond money,” said Meza of the district’s handling of the $170 million Measure E approved by voters in June 2016. “All those indicators pointed us to re-prioritize our bond funds to the aging middle schools.”

The passage of Measure E allowed the district “to be eligible to receive state matching funds to repair, modernize and upgrade classrooms throughout the district and to build a new elementary school.”

Meza stressed that the district is not abandoning its plan to build a new elementary school on a 12.74-acre site at the corner of Santa Teresa Boulevard and Club Drive (near Solorsano Middle School) but rather putting it on hold until the need arises.

“Our inclination is to finish that through and essentially shelve those plans,” said Meza. He said that when needed the new elementary school will be a “shovel-ready project.”

“We invested a lot of time and resources in getting this far,” he said.

In the interim, “our (existing) elementary schools have sufficient capacity to handle projected growth over the next several years,” Meza reported.

Trustees on board with what’s best for students

In a unanimous 7-0 vote at the Jan. 18 meeting, Gilroy’s Board of Trustees voted in favor of the district’s reallocation of Measure E’s Series B funds, with $90.5 million for South Valley and $71.8 million for Brownell.

“It was a pretty courageous and responsible action (by this board) to pull back and take a look at that and say, ‘Is this really being the best steward of our community resources to move forward with a new elementary school that we were all pretty excited about?,’” said Board President Linda Piceno, who retired from the district after a 32-year career in education.

Piceno added that there is an “equity” element to the decision as well, when comparing the existing South Valley and Brownell facilities to that of the newer Solorsano. Both South Valley, which was built in 1958 as Gilroy High School, and Brownell, which was constructed in 1949, are two of the oldest sites in the district and have seen better days.

“Two-thirds of our students go through those two sites (so) I’m excited to be able to bump up renovations to those two schools,” added Piceno, a former South Valley principal (1996-2002).

Meza said the district will start with simultaneous feasibility studies at the two middle school sites before returning to the board with more details as to what direction they want to go. They could opt to make significant renovations or go with a complete rebuild.

“(The feasibility studies) will determine the best way to approach the two schools and then we will have to figure out which one to move on first,” Meza said.

What caused the shift in priorities?

In the Jan. 18 presentation, titled “Elementary Enrollment Trends & New Elementary School Planning,” the board learned there was a decrease by 166 students at the elementary school level, according to Meza.

“That caught us by surprise,” Meza said. “When we passed our bond in 2016, we anticipated an increase in all grades.”

A steady decline in the Santa Clara County birth rate, which peaked in 2013, according to the presentation, as well as in the Gilroy birth rate changed the thought process for district leaders.

“The other key variables were an escalation of construction in building schools and the current housing market,” said Meza, who explained that despite the uptick in new construction in Gilroy that homeowners were younger and “waiting a little bit longer to have children.”

Piceno said it was the first time that Gilroy schools experienced an enrollment drop and called it a “rude awakening” of the current times.

“It’s a fairly new phenomenon for us. We thought we’d be OK because we still had all the new housing coming in,” Piceno added. “Most districts in the county are experiencing large amounts of dropping enrollment. But we thought we were kind of immune to that because the cost of living is lower in Gilroy and people move here because of that.”

In the Oak Grove School District of San Jose, that school board is considering closing several of its elementary schools due to declining enrollment.

Gilroy board members and district staff had two study sessions to review the enrollment data before coming to the final decision to postpone the new elementary school plan, according to Piceno.

“We have enough (elementary school) classrooms in the district at this point to take care of our needs and, should that change, we’re ahead of the game because we already have the land and have a plan,” Piceno said.

The new elementary school, when built, will serve up to 800 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The cost was estimated at about $43 million. A “schematic” design of the new school was approved by the board in Sept. 2017.

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