Parents lobby to preserve Citrus Heights elementary schools

Parents at two Citrus Heights elementary schools rallied this week against the potential relocation of their children as a way to accommodate Sylvan Middle School students.

At a noisy community meeting Wednesday night at Sylvan, they challenged San Juan Unified School District staff over a proposal to close the aging Sylvan campus and send its students to either Carriage Drive or Citrus Heights elementary school.

That would effectively end the elementary program at whichever campus the district taps to accommodate the middle-school students.

Carriage Drive Elementary School is an open-enrollment campus, which means students attend from throughout the suburban Sacramento County district. If the district converts Carriage Drive into a new home for Sylvan, 460 elementary pupils would have to move to their neighborhood schools. If the district converts Citrus Heights Elementary School, its 355 students would move to Carriage Drive, nearly doubling that school’s enrollment.

Amanda Stahr, mother of 5-year-old kindergartner Madison, said at the meeting that her daughter is a high-functioning autistic child who already benefits from Citrus Heights Elementary School’s inclusion program, which allows her to participate in Citrus Heights’ mainstream curriculum.

“Citrus Heights Elementary was the first school we looked at for kindergarten,” Stahr said in an interview Thursday. “We fell in love with it for the inclusion program.”

Stahr fears that the inclusion program, which has operated for 15 years at the Citrus Heights campus, likely would not remain intact with the same general education teachers and staff members who are savvy about its operation.

“It would be devastating,” Stahr said.

Meridith Coenen, another mother at Citrus Heights Elementary, said her 7-year-old son, Wyatt, also benefits from inclusion at Citrus Heights, where he is in the second grade.

“You can’t just say you’re going to move the whole support team to another campus,” Coenen said. She said parents are discussing a way to raise funds to help the district keep Sylvan open, preferably as a newly built campus.

Trustees are tentatively scheduled to take a vote Nov. 18. District leaders on Wednesday ruled out rebuilding Sylvan but are considering upgrading the middle-school campus as an alternative to displacing elementary students.

Julia Neuhauser, a preschool teacher at Citrus Heights and a parent with children in the district, said a group is forming to ask trustees to postpone any decision so community members can have more time to work on a solution. A plan to seek corporate help can go forward, she said, if trustees allow more time.

“If they just stuck with the renovation (of Sylvan), it’s better than the other option,” Neuhauser said. “Board after board has let that school decline.”

San Juan trustees seem disinclined to spend any more construction money at Sylvan Middle School, which was built 76 years ago.

In March, several board members said they would not favor upgrading Sylvan at a cost of $22 million. Board President Lucinda Luttgen said she didn’t see any reason to spend millions at the site “and end up with it still an old school. It’s like darning socks. After a while there’s nothing left to darn. You throw them away.”

On Wednesday night, San Juan Superintendent Kent Kern said the district won’t ask trustees to spend $44 million to rebuild Sylvan, which is crumbling despite multiple face-lifts.

“We’re not even sure $44 million is what we would be able to rebuild Sylvan for.”

Also too costly to recommend, Kern said, is a proposal to move students from Sylvan to Mesa Verde High School. One version of that project would cost up to $39 million to create separate space for middle-school students.

By comparison, moving Sylvan students to Carriage Drive Elementary School would cost $18 million, while moving them to Citrus Heights Elementary School would cost $17 million.

Kern said falling enrollment is a factor in the shifts.

“We have been in enrollment decline for years,” he told parents. “In the Citrus Heights region, we have a number of schools that have very low enrollment. We have schools much below their capacity.”

Enrollment at Sylvan Middle peaked a decade ago when 873 students enrolled for the 2003-04 school year, state figures show. Back then, only seventh- and eighth-graders attended the school. By 2010-11, just 494 students attended Sylvan.

The next year, it began enrolling a large number of sixth-graders. Last year, 670 students in sixth through eighth grade attended Sylvan.

The district’s 65 campuses need $2.4 billion in repairs and upgrades, according to a consultant’s review of roughly five dozen campuses. The district has about $350 million in bond money to do needed work.