Education

Developer seeks to move East Turlock subdivision out of Denair schools territory

Turlock Unified School District offices are in the original Turlock High School school building on Canal Drive.
Turlock Unified School District offices are in the original Turlock High School school building on Canal Drive. Modesto Bee file

Community meetings will be Oct. 28 in Turlock and Denair to air a developer’s proposal to shift a school district boundary line so children in the homes being built would go to Turlock schools.

Denair Unified School District has launched a community campaign to keep the land, saying it needs the income from developer fees and additional students. Turlock Unified Superintendent Dana Trevethan said the Turlock board has not taken a position on the petition.

The boundary move could cost the Denair district more than $1.4 million in developer fees and roughly $750,000 in student attendance funding each year, Denair Superintendent Aaron Rosander told a hometown crowd gathered at a board meeting last week.

“That is a game changer, folks,” Rosander said. “I’m going to fight to the bloody end to make sure this boundary doesn’t get changed. We would argue this is not reasonable or proper. This is territory that belongs in the Denair Unified School District.”

But developer fees must be used for school building needs, and building needs fall where the students actually attend, countered Frank Lima, president of the Turlock Unified Board.

“TUSD has been charged with the cost of providing facilities and educational services to a large number of students from the Denair USD living in the city of Turlock, based on parent choice and the legal right to receive an interdistrict transfer to the TUSD,” Lima said.

The boundary shift would affect homes proposed by developer Ronald Katakis at the northwest corner of Tuolumne and Waring roads. The proposed 19.7-acre Les Chateaux development will have 40 homes, approved in February by the Turlock City Planning Commission. The neighboring Fairbanks Ranch development, approved for 129 homes in March, sits on adjacent property that more directly faces the Turlock Unified boundary on the south side of Tuolumne.

Lead developers listed on city of Turlock planning documents for both projects did not return requests for comment from The Modesto Bee. Katakis sent a letter in September to Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon petitioning for the change.

Homes built on both properties will be closer to Denair schools than Turlock campuses, even though they sit within the Turlock city limits. If approved, the shift would add a bump-out to the Turlock Unified boundary profile, and could spur other developments in the area to seek similar changes.

Turlock schools, particularly Pitman High, have long drawn Denair students, Denair leaders said as the district attempted to bolster declining enrollment and emerge from near bankruptcy two years ago. Turlock high schools offer more extracurricular, music and sports activities, and advanced courses, than Denair High, which last year dropped to 312 students.

Turlock school test scores are typically higher than Denair’s. Common Core test scores released this fall show 33 percent of Denair students reached proficiency in English and 20 percent in math, compared with Turlock scores of 40 percent meeting standards in English and 25 percent in math.

The boundary shift decision rests with the Stanislaus County Committee on School District Organization, formed by the Stanislaus County Office of Education. The committee will hear community input at both meetings, with legal assistance from county office counsel, said SCOE Assistant Superintendent Sue Rich. The 10-person volunteer committee is made up of former school board members.

“After the first hearing, the committee must make a decision within 120 days. They may call additional hearings, but they must post a hearing in order to announce the decision,” Rich said by email. According to SCOE legal counsel, if the land was occupied, an election would be needed to shift the boundaries, but as it is not yet developed, the committee can rule either way.

The criteria the committee must use is listed in the California Education Code. Most of the list considers continued viability of finances and educational programs for both districts, under which Denair Unified could claim hardship. It also says the districts should be “organized on the basis of a substantial community identity,” which could favor the shift of Turlock city residents to Turlock schools.

Denair Unified attorney Chelsea Olson said enrollment is one of nine criteria the county committee must consider in these cases. “If a unified school district is less than 1,500, that counts a lot in the small district’s favor,” she said. Denair has about 1,300 students; Turlock has about 14,200.

Size figures in finances as well. The $2 million in the first year represents about 22 percent of Denair’s $9 million annual budget, Rosander said, compared with 1.5 percent of Turlock Unified’s $136 million budget.

“While fiscal progress has been made, the district’s budget remains fragile,” the Denair superintendent wrote in a letter to the committee. “Sadly, approval of the proposed transfer of territory would choke this progress and starve Denair schools of the growth and resources to which it is rightly entitled.”

Rosander urged community members to send him letters, sign petitions and attend the meetings. Community speakers are expected to have three minutes each to have their say.

Lima, however, said the focus should not be on districts and their finances.

“Rather than talking about boundaries, the neighboring school districts should join with the county office of education to find common ground and collaborations to offer all students within the region the best possible educational opportunities,” he said.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

COMMUNITY MEETINGS

TURLOCK: 5 p.m. Oct. 28, Turlock Unified School District professional development center, 1100 Cahill Ave., Turlock

DENAIR: 6 p.m. Oct. 28, Denair Middle School Coyote Center gymnasium, 3701 Lester Road, Denair

AGENDA: At both meetings, the Stanislaus County committee legal counsel will explain the Education Code procedure to reorganize boundaries, and the request at hand to transfer territory from the Denair district to Turlock. Speakers in favor of the proposal will go first, followed by those opposed. The committee will make closing comments.

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