San Juan considers shutting 76-year-old Sylvan Middle School

The aging, deteriorating Sylvan Middle School campus in Citrus Heights would close in 2016 under one proposal before San Juan Unified School District trustees.

Several board members said last week they do not favor two alternate options: Rebuilding the 76-year-old middle school at an estimated $40 million to $50 million cost or spending at least $18.5 million on Sylvan’s fourth modernization effort since 1994.

Under one of the closure proposals, more than 500 Sylvan students would move to nearby Mesa Verde High School, where they would share a campus with older pupils. Under the other, Sylvan students would move to Carriage Elementary School, which is adjacent to the Mesa Verde campus.

“I’m not going to spend $18 million to fix a school and end up with it still an old school,” said San Juan Board President Lucinda Luttgen. “It’s like darning socks. After a while there’s nothing left to darn. You throw them away.”

Sylvan’s future took center stage in recent weeks after an architectural consultant’s review of roughly five dozen campuses showed the district would need $1 billion to repair district facilities overall and another $1 billion to pursue a long-term master plan.

The facilities analysis and the master plan, still ongoing, are expected to cost the district about $970,000. In the short term, the district can tap $350 million in bonds voters authorized in fall 2012 for repairs of aging district structures.

Of all the schools analyzed by architecture firm DLR Group, Sylvan was in the worst shape and, Luttgen said, is the only campus facing possible closure because of its physical condition. Its location, on a busy stretch of Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights, makes the land a resale candidate.

Some heavily used classrooms have no wheelchair access. Paved grounds between classrooms have lifted in some places, subsided in others. Sinks feed into a French drain and can no longer be used. The ceiling over the multipurpose room stage leaks on rainy days.

Sylvan alumni said they were saddened by the prospect of closure. Dick Cowan, who attended Sylvan in the late 1950s and is president of the San Juan Alumni Association, noted that what was then known as Sylvan Elementary District formed not long after California’s Gold Rush.

The old Sylvan School was built by a local farmer in 1862 at the northwest corner of Auburn Boulevard and Sylvan Road, site of the existing middle school. It was one of Sacramento County’s earliest rural schools, according to a city of Citrus Heights online history. In 1927, when it was deemed too small to serve as a grammar school, it was moved to its current site at 6921 Sylvan Road to serve as an occasional community clubhouse.

Cowan said he will be sorry if the middle school is moved. But he’s prepared for the change.

“School districts today are working hard to meet great challenges, families are changing, learning is changing … and holding onto more land and buildings than a district needs into the near future is taking money away from students and teachers,” he said in an email.

Olly May Dotson, who met future husband John Giusti when she was in the second grade at Sylvan, said he would hate to see the campus go. “But it’s modern times now,” she said. “Whatever has to be has to be.”

The district is planning community forums in late April on Sylvan’s future, spokesman Trent Allen said. A staff recommendation will go to the board in late fall, he said. More forums will be held in the fall.

If trustees ultimately decide to close the campus, students would be sent elsewhere starting in fall 2016. Modifying Mesa Verde to take students from Sylvan, less than a mile away, would cost up to $17.2 million, according to a staff report. An alternative option to have students attend Carriage Elementary, next to the high school, would cost up to $7 million.

The Mesa Verde proposal drew a packed meeting room at last week’s board meeting, with teachers and other workers objecting to the blending of campuses.

“This is a very small high school,” said Michael Peoples, a math teacher, speaking on behalf of Mesa Verde teachers and other employees. “Everything here is small. The parking lot is small. We just got our library three years ago. We still don’t have a cafeteria after 40 years.”

The high school, at 38.3 acres, is the district’s smallest.

“We just found out about this proposal six days ago,” Peoples said later. “You’re going to be mixing kids 11 and 12 to 18 or 19.”

Dan Brown, a 20-year math teacher representing Sylvan employees, told board members that students are worried about attending a high school before the ninth grade. Some students have told him they are afraid of being bullied.

The blending of campuses could work, Brown said the next day, as long as Sylvan were housed on the campus as an independent middle school separate from the older students.

Separately, board members are tackling issues of falling enrollment. Mesa Verde, for example, could see its enrollment decline to 922, or about 3 percent, by fall 2016, with no students from Sylvan. Mesa Verde has enough classroom space to accommodate 1,584 students.

Sylvan could see its enrollment decline to 556 by fall 2015, a drop of 86 from last fall. That is just over half of the middle school’s 1,056-student capacity.

For the last year, the district has talked about school consolidation. But district officials say they have no immediate plans to combine campuses or close schools because of enrollment declines.

“I think there are too many unknowns right now,” said district spokesman Allen. “What we’ll concentrate on this spring is how we define low enrollment and what we do to increase enrollments. Absent solutions there, that’s when we could get into conversations about consolidations.”

For now, he said, enrollment in the 47,800-student district is expected to remain relatively flat over the next two years.

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