Don Christopher stands at the construction site of the new
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Christmas came early this year for Christopher High School – twice – but the same Santa delivered both times.

On the heels of disheartening news that the Gilroy Unified School District could not match a $1 million gift from garlic mogul Don Christopher to help fund an improved CHS sports complex, a surprise phone call Dec. 19 breathed new hope into the stalled project.

The dust of disappointment had barely settled when Larry Sanford, spokesperson for the CHS parent committee spearheading the new track and field effort, heard his phone ring.

Don Christopher – the benefactor for whom the high school at 850 Day Road is named – was on the other line.

“He asked me how much was required to get at least phase I started. When I said $1 million, Don replied, ‘Okay, let’s do it’ and offered to foot the phase I bill,” Sanford said. “I felt stunned and so grateful.”

Phase I will likely include a new turf and track, according to Sanford. He envisions it might be possible to break ground by May 1, 2013.

Christopher, who previously donated the 10 acres of land the school sits on, along with $75,000 for student activities and a $1.2 million endowment, initially wanted to see a match to his million before he donated any funds.

But Gilroy’s garlicky godfather decided to get things moving when GUSD said it didn’t have the money.

Sanford received a second phone call Dec. 20 from Christopher, who said he would double his donation amount to $2 million.

That’s almost half of the estimated $4.25 million needed to erect a safe and “humble complex” with better turf, track and bleachers, followed gradually by fencing, better lighting, a flagpole, guest bleachers, a press box and scoreboard.

“I am overwhelmed and so happy, said CHS Athletic director Darren Yafai. “My wish for the new year is that all parties involved will be 100 percent supportive and share the sense of urgency to get this project done as soon as possible.”

CHS Principal John Perales says the gift will benefit the entire community.

“This goes above and beyond the monetary donation because of the effect this will have on these kids for years to come,” he said. “This is such a blessing because this field will be used after school and on weekends by the entire community. Don Christopher is setting such an exceptional example for our kids with his generosity.”

At the end of a phone call Dec. 20, Christopher told Perales, “I just want the kids to have a safe place to play.”

GUSD Superintendent Debbie Flores was thrilled when she received the good news from Christopher.

“I was absolutely speechless,” she said. “The generosity of the Christopher family is absolutely unmatched…in my career of over 35 years I have never seen anything like this before, and there were people in wealthier areas I have worked in that had the ability, but didn’t do what the Christophers have done – I just kept thanking him over and over.”

Right now, the athletic field on the corner of Santa Teresa Boulevard and Day Road is more or less a “pasture of dirt and natural grass in terrible shape” according to Yafai. He describes the area as riddled with divots, holes, a “hilly” surface and tufts of grass that grow sporadically in clumps.

The turf is so shoddy, in fact, that some sports injuries have been “catastrophic” due to poor surface conditions and a lack of congruency, according to CHS Athletic trainer Stacey Walker, who “found a 6-inch hole by twisting my own ankle.”

The GUSD Board of Education was receptive and understanding of these issues when they received an impassioned pitch from the parent committee in early November. After a hard look at their financials, however, they announced Dec. 6 the district would be unable to match the original $1 million pledge from Christopher.

“We would love to see a new field and stadium at CHS, but all of the Measure P funds are earmarked to pay for existing projects and future projects already in the pipeline,” lamented GUSD trustee Mark Good. “The money just isn’t there.”

In November, district staff estimated there was roughly $7.5 million left in capital funds – most of which is already designated for 10 different construction/renovation projects currently underway or on deck at various elementary, middle and high school sites.

The $7.5 million factored in developer fees and state funding, but consisted mostly of Measure P dollars. Approved by Gilroyans in 2008, Measure P is the $150 million school facilities bond designed for funding capital projects on school campuses that have infrastructure needs.

Recent calculations by district staff, however, show there is only $1.6 million left in capital funding through the end of 2014, according to GUSD Assistant Superintendent Rebecca Wright.

Because almost all of the available Measure P funds have been allocated, “we were not originally considering a third round of Measure P funding until more funds became available – most likely in 2015 when the next series of bonds can be sold,” Flores explained.

What little is left and available, she added, may be needed to complete the various major projects that are already underway or about to begin at some of the oldest schools in the district.

But things are certainly looking up.

“The bottom line is that we are so thrilled by the generosity of Don Christopher and we want to jump through all of the required hoops as quickly as possible to see this project completed,” said Flores.

She pointed out that maintenance workers will have to dig down four feet to lay down new soil in the field. Analysis needs to be done on whether new grass or artificial turf is cheaper in the long haul, she added.

“There are quite a few hurdles the district must clear before we can break ground,” she reminded. “We saved at least 10 months to a year having the plans already designed, but they are seven or eight years old.”

Building codes and requirements change, she added, so the district might need to go through a new approval process – the timeline for which is dictated by the Division of the State Architect, since GUSD is a public organization.

Upon the State Architect’s approval, GUSD can begin putting this project out to bid.

“We want to do everything we can do make this a smooth process and get this going as soon as possible,” agreed Wright.

CHS field mess: How it all began

Problems with the CHS field trace back to the high school’s planning phases, when synthetic turf and track were removed from specifications to cut down costs. Reduced measures called for “hydroseeding” (spraying a mixture of seeds, mulch and water) instead of laying down new soil, according to Yafai. He said the move was authorized by former GUSD Assistant Superintendent Enrique Palacios, the Gilbane Construction Company and its sub-contractor, Jensen Landscaping.

“What we have now is the natural Day Road clay field,” Yafai explained. “Our hope and our goal today with the new Christopher donation is that all parties involved recognize the urgency of getting this project started and completed sooner than later.”

Other arguments brought forth by the sports complex committee include the thousands of dollars GUSD spends annually on transporting track and football athletes across town to GHS for games and practice, as pointed out by Yafai. Between city recreation programs, Gavilan College and high school athletes, a “tremendous amount of pressure is being put on the GHS facility” which is being used “around the clock,” GUSD Superintendent Debbie Flores confirmed.

Why can’t the district contribute Prop 30 funds?

As for incoming funds from Prop 30  the recently enacted measure that will raise taxes to stave off massive cuts to public education – it’s not like GUSD will be swimming in new cash.

Although the measure will save the district from $4.7 million in midyear trigger cuts, that money will be used to cancel 10 unpaid furlough days for teachers and district staff. The 10 furlough days equated to a five percent paycut.

Prop 30 funding won’t even arrive until later in the school year – possibly as late as June, according to district staff. The state is waiting until after tax collections in April to make payments to all California school districts.

Flores noted “it will likely be necessary for GUSD to borrow money in order to meet all district financial obligations – especially payroll,” since GUSD has already begun to pay staff back the difference of the five percent pay cut.

CHS Principal John Perales said earlier he was saddened by the district’s inability to contribute to the project – but that he remained hopeful.

“I have to say I was disappointed in the decision, but the Measure P money is simply no longer available,” he acknowledged. “We have been given so much by the Christophers and we are all extremely grateful. It’s time to internalize it and move forward.”

Little did Perales know at the time that, thanks to Don Christopher, ‘moving forward’ will now happen sooner than later.

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