State schools chief praises lawmakers at groundbreaking for special education building

08/15/2014 7:27 PM

08/16/2014 9:59 PM

Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, shared a major accomplishment Friday morning with local educators, the groundbreaking for a $1.9 million special education building on the campus of a Beachwood area elementary school.

Torlakson, state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, spoke briefly before ceremonial shovels of dirt were turned at Joe Stefani School on Ranchero Lane. All three were instrumental in getting state funding restored for the 5,600-square-foot special education facility.

The state’s top education official lauded Cannella’s and Gray’s efforts.

Cannella said he did a lot of arm-twisting among state senators and the result was a 5-4 vote of the allocations board to retrieve funds lost eight years ago in a bureaucratic snafu.

Torlakson said the $1.9 million was one of the last chunks of money left from the Proposition 55 state bond measure. He said he has been working with the state Legislature to get another school bond on the ballot, probably two years away.

“With the bond, great things will happen here,” Torlakson said. “I am working with Steve Gomes (Merced County school superintendent) and other superintendents to implement Common Core (curriculum) and the opportunities we are giving students to learn 21st century skills. This means a lot.”

California was falling behind the rest of the world in educational attainment but is turning the corner and heading in the right direction now. The state’s high school graduation rate has risen to 80 percent, he said.

Torlakson said he is hearing good things about the Merced area’s educational picture. He said the new Local Control Funding Formula, which provides more state money for educating disadvantaged youths, foster children and English language learners, is making a difference.

With the new water bond measure on November’s ballot, a school bond measure won’t make it this year, Torlakson said.

Cannella said the new special education wing building is a tremendous win for Merced County, most importantly for the severely handicapped students who will be served there.

“There was a lot of twisting arms,” Cannella said. “We put politics and political priorities aside.” He said he is fortunate to have a good working relationship with Gray.

Gray said the community really did win Friday. Without help from Torlakson and Cannella, supporters probably wouldn’t have been able to put the votes together for the special ed building’s financing.

“We went through a terrible recession,” Gray said. “The opportunity to move forward shouldn’t have been missed for bureaucratic reasons.”

Gene Stamm, a Merced City School District Board of Education member, said he’s grateful that the new building owned by the Merced County Office of Education is being built in the Beachwood area, which sometimes is forgotten.

Gomes, the county superintendent, said the new special education wing will reduce the amount of traveling done by medically fragile students. He praised the partnership with the city school district in putting the building on an elementary campus.

Torlakson said all students, including the severely handicapped, deserve a quality education.

Construction begins next week on the special education building, to be built by C.T. Brayton and Sons of Escalon. The building is due to be completed in April, said Paul Speed, director of facilities for the county schools office.

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