Schools ask voters to open wallets

Tight space and campus deficiencies are driving schools to turn to voters in November.

Hart Ransom Union School District and Denair Unified School District have bond measures on the Nov. 6 ballot. The bonds, which need 55 percent of the vote to pass, seek property tax increases for what proponents say are needed improvements not paid for by the state or developers.

Hart Ransom, a rural, two-school Modesto district of about 1,000 kindergarten through eighth-grade students, is one of the few districts in the Central Valley where taxpayers aren't paying off a bond, Superintendent Ream Lochry said.

"We've never had a bond, and there are lots of school districts that have bonds in our areas to improve facilities," he said. "Even little Paradise School District passed a bond, and they have much better facilities for only 140 kids."

He said new facilities are crucial to keeping the district competitive. They are aimed at improving arts and athletics programs, creating space for a preschool program and offering a longer school day for kindergartners. One thing the funds won't go toward is room for more pupils, he said, because the district isn't growing.

Measure G asks voters for permission to sell $3.9 million in bonds, which would be repaid by property owners over 40 years and go toward six new classrooms, four new athletic fields, a parking lot and a multiuse building. The current building is so small that during basketball games, spectators have limited space to watch a game from the sidelines, and volleyball matches have to be held on the concrete outside. The Mid Valley Athletic League dropped the district this school year because of what it determined to be safety problems, forcing the school to look elsewhere for nonleague opponents.

Unlike Hart Ransom, the Denair Unified School District is growing, at a pace of about a couple of classrooms and teachers per year. It is proposing a $13 million bond sale to help pay for a game of musical chairs among three campuses.

Denair Middle School would move from its spot next to Denair Elementary School, across Lester Road to be rebuilt bigger next to Denair High School. It would share new features, such as tennis courts, with the high school.

Denair Elementary School students would take over the empty classrooms at the former middle school.

The district also would weed out aging portables, or "relocatable" classrooms, some of which date to the mid-1970s.

"What we're trying to do is give our elementary school a place to expand, and at the same time, we can eliminate some of the old buildings, especially the relocatables," Superintendent Ed Parraz said. "And the middle school going next to the high school is just a logical fit. It would just make it a lot easier. We would be able to have some shared facilities between the high school and middle school. The middle school will have some tennis courts, which the high school can use."

A bond supporter said it would ease overcrowding, among other things.

"It would add another dimension, and I think that would be good," said Debbie Nutcher, treasurer for the Denair Citizens for Better Schools, which is campaigning for the bond measure, Measure K. "We're just so overcrowded right now, that it is getting to the point where we have kids coming in, and we don't have room for them."

The district has 1,500 students. More than 600 of them are at the elementary school, which is charting most of the growth.

The measure follows an $8.2 million bond passed in 2001. That helped pay for work at the elementary school and build a high school gym, library, science and business wing, and an events center, including a band room, wrestling room, cafeteria and amphitheater.

For the middle school, state and developer dollars would help pay for classrooms, but not for a multipurpose room, offices, library and playgrounds, Parraz said. The district would be eligible to receive about $14 million from the state for the project if the bond passes.

"We are experiencing growth, not really massive growth, but we know it is going to creep up," Parraz said. "And we just want to be proactive and make sure we stay on top of it for our students, to make sure we are covered."

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.