Former site of youth facility in Paso Robles is still in limbo

Once eyed as a potential prison site, former juvenile correctional facility may become a charter school

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comSeptember 18, 2013 

The parking lot at the now closed youth correctional facility in Paso Robles.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

The fate of the sprawling North County property that was formerly home to the El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility is again up in the air.

Earlier this year, San Luis Obispo County leaders said they were eyeing parts of the roughly 160-acre site at Airport and Dry Creek roads for a multicounty 200-bed regional jail after the state declared the facility surplus in December 2012.

But after learning that the site, built for juveniles, would not be suitable for adults without costly upgrades and other fixes to the grounds, as well as requiring its own annual operating expenses, those plans have faded.

“Even though the idea was a good one, the cost far outweighed the value,” Sheriff Ian Parkinson said, noting that it would cost about $25 million per year to operate the site at its
capacity of 700 beds.

“Even if the state gave the property to the county for free, the cost of repair would far outweigh the value of its use.”

The county has not calculated the cost to retrofit the property, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla said, but the cost would probably be high.

“Just about everything on the premises needed to be repaired and the buildings brought up to current code,” he said.

Meanwhile, a group of locals has come forward in recent weeks with plans to create the Très Robles Academy Charter High School at the site under a lease-to-own agreement with the state.

“The vision we’re developing with the school right now is to emphasize the core subjects where it’s exciting for kids and you hold the interest level with project learning,” co-founder Jim Fotinakes said, adding that the school would have a maximum of 500 to 600 high school students.

On Tuesday, a state spokeswoman said the property would only be available for purchase when Gov. Jerry Brown signs Surplus Property Bill AB 826. If that happens, the surplus sale would first be offered to local governments on Jan. 1, 2014, she said. A list price is not yet available.

Still, the charter school’s organizers, led by some of the same people who recently brought Almond Acres Charter Academy to San Miguel, want a shot at it. They’re in talks with elected officials such as Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and Rep. Lois Capps to gain support for the project and their lease-to-own idea.

Charter schools are public schools, don’t charge tuition and are typically operated by groups of individuals.

They are run by slightly different rules than public schools. For example, students don’t have to live within certain geographic boundaries in order to attend. The charter high school would welcome students from throughout the county, according to its website.

County schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said he’s met with the group.

“I think it’s ambitious,” Crocker said. “They are focusing primarily on the facilities part, and that will be challenging.”

Organizers say the former juvenile detention center is ideal because it has so much already built, including classrooms, gymnasiums, a 400-seat theater, a 200-seat dining hall, sports fields and other facilities, according to the group’s website, http://tresroblesacademy.com.

Preliminary plans for the Très Robles Academy call for high school instruction along with a preschool program, independent study program, and after-school programs, according to its website. The group also proposes additional uses for the complex, including a Cal Fire training base, a youth aquatic center, and space for community organizations and other entities. The charter school proposal is separate from the public safety training center the City of Paso Robles is pursuing for a 13-acre plot at the youth correctional facility that once contained the property’s sewer plant.

The charter group’s founders are listed as Lyle Porter, founding board president; Fotinakes, executive director; Margaret Porter, board member; Kathleen Hall, consultant; and Callie Lambeth, board member. Fotinakes retired as Templeton High School’s principal in 2009.

Aside from Almond Acres, which was first denied in Paso Robles before locating in San Miguel, local charter schools include the Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School in Avila Beach and the Grizzly Challenge Charter School in San Luis Obispo. A handful of smaller charter schools from other counties also operate locally.

The state held on to the Youth Authority property after it closed in 2008 because it was looking to bring a trio of state prison projects there. Part of the concept was a re-entry facility that would provide special programming for inmates’ release into society. That drew criticism from locals.

But the plan was ultimately approved by local agencies wooed by the promise of priority aid for county jail expansions. San Luis Obispo County got to keep the $25 million it received from the deal to expand its women’s jail in a project expected to break ground in early 2014, Parkinson said.

The state now wants to build re-entry facilities inside existing prisons instead of in communities, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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