After eight years of paying on a school bond for a new gymnasium in Benton, the bond oversight committee had proposed to reallocate that money, $4 million, to other schools in the district for maintenance. The committee’s decision is following a dramatic decrease in students at the elementary level in the area, the numbers cut from 80 to 53.
The money was originally for a new school in Chalfant, but after that project fell through, the money was promised to Benton for a gym.
High Desert Academy, the area’s high school, is slated to be closed next year and those handful of students bussed to Bishop High School.
But small town voices prevailed and the gym will be built in Benton. Parents and teachers of the district spoke up against the proposal and at a meeting on Jan. 18, the board decided, almost immediately, to drop the proposal. The Eastern Sierra Unified School District Board of Trustees has yet to make a resolution approving the funds stay at Benton.
There is also expected expansion and population growth expected in the area once the economic climate picks up.
Matthew Baumann, Eastern Sierra Unified School District trustee whose district includes the Tri-Valley area said the citizen bond oversight committee for Proposition 39 funds had made the recommendation to reallocate the funds. Baumann said the recommendation was a result of state budget cuts reducing funding for things like capitol improvements and maintenance to buildings.
Baumann added that the proposal was solely the idea of the committee.
“I’m committed to the building of the school gym,” Baumann said. “Its what the tax payers paid for.”
“Your school staff has spoken on the needs of the children and the impacts of loosing this source of funding. They also relayed the comments of the kids as to the feeling of being taken advantage of because they were in a small school,” said Mono County Supervisor Hap Hazard, whose district includes the Tri-Valley area of Hammill, Chalfant and Benton in a letter to residents in his district.
Parent, Melinda Melendrez said word of the meeting came just days before it was to happen and so she “hit the streets” to get the word out. She attended the meeting and said while there was a small turn-out, the board members had let the opponents of the proposal know their voices have been heard.
Benton schools are the only in the district without a gymnasium. Melendrez said that during the cold months, students cannot go outside and instead must stay in classrooms. The lack of a gym also makes it difficult to hold sporting events.
Baumann said with a chuckle that the Benton schools have been called the “forgotten step-child of Mono County.”
And, Benton also lacks a large hall or space to hold gatherings or parties. Melendrez said the annual Christmas dinner held at the Benton Community Center is elbow-to-elbow and more space is needed. She explained that the community center was larger at one time, but the space has been divided into a Senior Center and Community Center.
The bond money, $4 million of Proposition 39 money was originally designed to build a school in Chalfant Valley. The Chalfant school fell through and the money was reallocated to Benton. Now, in the throes of some of the biggest budget cuts in California education history, the committee thought the money would be better spent on general maintenance at all the schools.
However, the bad economy may be an advantage for the school as it looks for contractors and many contractors are hurting for work. Melendrez said Benton school is getting ready to send out new request for proposals for construction of the gym. Baumann said the community and school is hoping that a better deal can be found for construction as the economy has dried up much of the work for construction business.
Hazard also wrote in his letter that the area is expected to have a population increase and the gym will be needed eventually.
“I pointed out that the Benton and Hammil area had done a community visioning project and that plan calls for an increase in population over the next 10-15 years,” Hazard said. “I stated that in the Tri-Valley area there are about 225 lots/homes that have already been through the planning process and simply are awaiting an improved economy. My concern was that if the school board took the money now they wouldn’t have funding available when the school began to grow.”
The gymnasium has been saved, but, according to Hazard, equally pressing decisions are coming down the pike for the trustees.
“Now the bad news: While we were there we were able to list the budget issues and concerns. Next year there will be real budget problems for this school district,” Hazard said. “Deep cuts are possible depending on the State’s funding and if the bond measure passes or not. We may face anywhere from slight impacts to full school closures. This school board is facing some very difficult decisions ahead.”