The oft-delayed hope for a high school in Salida marched toward reality Monday as officials agreed to hire a builder and seize a farmhouse in the way of a new road.
Modesto City Schools board members also reviewed a plan to clean polluted groundwater and remove tainted dirt before construction starts along Stoddard Road.
Board members last month rejected a $103 million bid, saying it was too expensive. Monday, they agreed to pay Acme Construction Co. $123 million under a different financing structure and prepared to spend $149 million with other costs added.
"This is a long way from the little red schoolhouse," board chairman Steve Collins said just before the unanimous nod to Acme.
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The votes set up today's groundbreaking ceremony on the birthday of Joseph Gregori, a Beyer High School principal who died nine years ago, for whom the Salida school will be named.
Officials acknowledged taking public knocks for frustrating delays. But they blamed state bureaucracy, bickering between the city of Modesto and Stanislaus County, and county planners who "changed the rules" by demanding wider roads to the campus.
"It's amazing how many hoops you have to jump through to build a high school," said board member Cindy Marks.
Officials in 2001 sold voters on the idea of bonds to open Gregori and another high school in 2006. Voters in the high school district agreed and Enochs High opened last year in northeast Modesto, but Gregori won't be ready until at least fall 2010.
The wait would be longer still, officials said Monday, if not for a lease-leaseback deal, a financing structure that allows Acme to lease the property from the school district when the district runs out of money for the project in about two years. The district would then lease it back and make monthly payments of a half-million dollars at the going interest rate.
The $103 million bid rejected last month would represent a starting price that would escalate with extra costs for soil and groundwater cleanup and buying land to widen roads, said Glenn Gould, the district's lawyer. The $123 million "guaranteed maximum price" shouldn't go above that, he said.
He said builder Lewis C. Nelson and Sons, which submitted the rejected bid, had not responded to an earlier inquiry for the lease-leaseback option. The company is "not happy," filed a request for information under the California Public Records Act and protested late Monday, saying they were not notified in time to attend the board meeting.
The lease-leaseback option allows the district to seek financing for about $17 million, officials said.
Duane Wolterstorff, the district's manager of fiscal support services, identified $124.5 million in potential funding of the project's total $149 million price, including furniture, land purchase, professional services and fees. Some would come from savings realized during building projects at Modesto and Davis high schools and a future project at Downey High, he said.
The district reportedly reached a deal recently to buy 2.2 acres from Gloria Bracco and Ed Rusca needed to widen Stoddard Road and to construct Pirrone Road, south of the new school, from Stoddard to Dale Road. But board members used eminent domain to acquire the property Monday because it remains under a Williamson Act contract with the state that provided a tax break to the owners to keep them farming the land.
The district must clean toxic soil to prevent tainted groundwater from polluting other wells, a consultant said. That process could cost $2 million, half of which the state will pay.
No Salida residents spoke at the meeting.
Outgoing board member Connie Chin said, "I want the community of Salida to know this high school is coming. Just a few more years. Hang on."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.