City officials and educators spoke out this week in favor of relocating Atascadero Junior High School and the adjacent Atascadero Fine Arts Academy.
The Atascadero Unified School District’s board held a workshop at district headquarters Wednesday to discuss whether to renovate the crumbling downtown campus or rebuild the schools elsewhere, most likely on a district-owned property on San Benito Road.
Although the school board did not make a decision, it did hear from a handful of people advocating a move.
“Since 1975, I have felt that the junior high should not be downtown, and moving it is the best option,” said Carol Harter, a former counselor and principal at Atascadero Junior High School.
Originally built in 1947, the junior high school is in need of “significant deferred maintenance work,” including new roofing, flooring, windows and heating and cooling systems, according to the district’s facilities master plan.
The Fine Arts Academy, converted to its current use in 2000, also needs “extensive modernization,” the plan said.
The district hired a Santa Maria firm, Architectural Construction & Environment Support Services, to analyze costs for three different scenarios. General building contractor Michael J. Lewis presented the findings at Wednesday’s workshop.
Modernization, which would entail updating all existing buildings at Lewis and Olmeda avenues, replacing portable classrooms with permanent structures and installing new utilities in classroom areas, would cost about $24 million.
Another option, a mix of modernization and new construction, would retain the existing gymnasium, library, administration building and other offices while incorporating new classroom facilities. That would cost nearly $30.9 million.
Lastly, Atascadero Unified could construct a new junior high school and fine arts academy on property that the district already owns for about $49.5 million. That price includes about $1.5 million in demolition costs, Lewis said.
Costs would be covered by the $117 million school improvement bond measure approved by local voters in November.
Stan McDonald of McDonald Appraisal Services in Atascadero estimated the value of the current site, which covers seven city blocks and 22 acres, at $4.8 million.
However, he warned that the district would have difficulty selling or leasing the land in today’s real estate market.
“If the parcel was vacant, there’d be very few people looking to buy it,” McDonald said. According to Kathy Hannemann, the district’s assistant superintendent for educational services, where the schools are located “simply does not matter” for future students.
“When push comes to shove, we don’t have strong instructional reasons to site the school in one place or another,” Hannemann said, due to technological advances. “Design matters much more.”
Still, board member Corrine Kuhnle pointed out, the schools are within walking distance of the new youth center and the future site of Atascadero-Martin Polin Regional Library. “That is quite an asset for our schools,” she said.
Supporters see moving the two schools as essential for Atascadero’s economic development.
“A vital downtown is good for the city, the community and the students,” said Rolfe Nelson, a former Atascadero Junior High principal who also argued that a downtown site is unsafe for kids. “The school district property is valuable, and in the future, it’s going to be a gold mine.” Atascadero Mayor Tom O’Malley and Atascadero Main Street Executive Director Steve Martin agreed.
“We’re doing everything we can to make the downtown area profitable,” O’Malley told the board members. “You have the largest piece of property.”
Kuhnle and fellow board member Donn Clickard stressed the need to proceed with caution. “What we’re going to be deciding in the next year or so will have ramifications for the next 40 years,” Clickard said.
The school board plans to revisit the issue at its regular meeting June 28.