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Fingers crossed at CUSD
The state's poor credit rating has thrown a monkey wrench into the Ceres Unified School District's plans for a $20 million school modernization project and a $120 million construction wishlist. But federal stimulus funds may come to the rescue at the beginning of next year.

Superintendent Walt Hanline said the district has a slate of projects to replace aging portable classrooms and build new classrooms. When the district began assembling its to-do list conditions were right for the state to fund the expenses. State budget problems have now caused CUSD to retool its strategy.

"This stuff is changing daily right now," said Hanline.

Hanline said CUSD encountered "three collision factors" that include:

• The state being unable to sell school construction bonds because of the state's budget problems and degradation of its credit rating;

• The plunging of local assessed valuation, which reduces the amount of money CUSD may issue bonds for as part of Measure U. Last year the voters authorized CUSD to issue up to $60 million in bonds but CUSD can only issue $30 million because assessed valuation has dropped. The Measure U formula allows only $60 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. Plunging property values therefore limited the amount CUSD can issue.

• Failing to win the lottery of federal government set up economic stimulus funds. Uncle Sam is loaning districts which were given authority for construction bonds but can't because of a drop in assessed valuation. The theory behind the loan program is that assessed valuation will rise within 15 years when the loan amount is due. CUSD requested $25 million in the federal Qualifying Schools Construction Bond (QSCB) but lost the first go-round lottery.

Hanline feels CUSD has a shot of obtaining the federal loan in January.

"We may get lucky in January," said Hanline. "We'd get $25 million from bridge financing."

Hanline also is optimistic that the "state will get its act together" to issue funds between July and December 2010. Hanline said "it's not a matter of if but when."

"We've had some state money trickling in," said Assistant Superintendent Fred VanVleck. "Like the wood shop modernization, the state has paid their match on that."

Despite the funding dilemma, Hanline says he's confident that CUSD can have all the projects done or started within five years. His successor, Assistant Superintendent Scott Siegel, is not as optimistic.

Despite that CUSD recently added five new elementary schools in Berryhill, La Rosa, Adkison, Hidahl and Sinclear, there is a need to make improvements to the aging campuses. The district wants to replace approximately 100 portables with modular classrooms. The newer campuses also need additions since most were built incomplete, with the school offices and libraries/computer labs utilizing space intended for classrooms.

One of the underlying tenants of CUSD's building programs, said Van Vleck, is to equalize the campuses.

"We don't want to have the have and have-not schools," said VanVleck. "And this is about curb appeal and nice classrooms for our students."

Safely funded for now is the Cesar Chavez Junior High School, which just began construction phase with funding from local Measure U bond funds. The district is fronting the $38 million cost of the 38-classroom school with the hopes that the state will reimburse it.

"We believe that we're going to be funded by the state for its portion of the junior high," said Hanline. "We can pay for it and get paid back by the state in the future."

State hardship money - given to districts which have reached their bonding limits - is expected to be coming in for the $15 million Hanline Elementary School near Central Valley High School and $12 million Lucas Elementary to be constructed between Roeding and Don Pedro just west of Mitchell Road.

The School Board will host a Study Session on the construction projects at 4:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Sept. 17. Hanline said he hopes those interested will show up.

CUSD has identified the following improvements:

• Argus High School - Add four new classrooms but keeping existing portables;

• Berryhill Elementary School - Add three new classrooms;

• Carroll Fowler Elementary - Replace 10 portables with modulars, add four kindergarten classrooms and add six K-6 classes;

• Caswell Elementary School - Remove 11 old portables and add 19 new classrooms;

• Ceres High School - Add eight new classrooms and replace the wing Doghouse;

• Don Pedro Elementary School - Add three new classrooms and replace five new portables with permanent looking portables that are stuccoed;

• Caswell Elementary - Replace seven portable classrooms, add five K-6 classrooms and four kindergarten classrooms;

• Central Valley High School - Add a $10.8 million 16-classroom wing on the northern edge of the campus immediately west of the library. The new building will house 400 students.

• Joel Hidahl Elementary School - Add three new classrooms;

• La Rosa Elementary School - Free up space for three kindergarten classrooms by building a complex for offices and library, as well as add three new K-6 classrooms;

• M. Robert Adkison Elementary School - Add three new classrooms;

• Sam Vaughn Elementary School - Add four new classrooms and three new kindergarten classrooms;

• Sinclear Elementary School - Add three new classrooms;

• Virginia Parks Elementary School - Add three new kindergarten classrooms;

• Walter White Elementary School - Build six new classrooms as well as replace 8 portable classrooms with modular structures;

• Westport Elementary - Add three new classrooms, two for kindergarten, south of the existing school.

Hanline noted that modular buildings are not the same as portable buildings.

"They are going to be for-real, long-lasting buildings, not boxes with windows," said Hanline.

All five new recently built schools were built as modular buildings. Built of metal studs, they are only called modular because their metal wall sections are prefabricated at a plant in Lathrop and brought to the job site. The building is assembled on top of a ground level concrete slab. The process is less expensive since the prefabrication is done at a labor not paid at prevailing wages. But because metal prices have climbed, CUSD will not be realizing as much of a savings as "we optimistically hoped," said Hanline.

Originally the district intended to do the projects with mostly Measure U funds. Hanline now said the district is attempting to use up more of state eligibility funding instead of taking money out of local bonds.

CUSD qualifies for eligibility funding because of growth at Summit Charter Academy and Whitmore Charter School and its projections to gain 4,000 students in a 10-year period from housing projects approved in Ceres but temporarily on hold because of the recession. Kindergarten numbers have increased to its largest number ever.

Hanline said many of the district's portables have outlived their usefulness and have no real value because of the costs of having them moved.

"Years ago we bought 100 portables that we have kids in right now scattered at all the sites that could be thrown away," said Hanline.

The state used to have an emergency portable classroom program and leased them to districts. When the state got out of the portables program, it sold them back to CUSD for $1 million, which was a sweet deal since it now allows CUSD to apply for $7 million in funding.