In 2004 Mono County voters approved Measure E, which authorized the sale of up to $11.1 million in bonds of the Eastern Sierra Unified School District to finance school facilities described in the proposition. Today, as the funds begin to dwindle, questions are being asked regarding the bond and the obligation to use some of it to build a gym in Benton.
Some members of the community remember previous ESUSD Boards of Education earmarking some of this funding for a gym. Superintendent Don Clark, who was hired two years after Measure E was approved, however, stated at Wednesday night Board meeting held in Benton that while discussions had been had among previous Boards to this end, no formal resolution or vote was taken.
The proposition itself does not specifically mention a gym for Benton either. The ballot language back then stated “Eastern Sierra Unified School District Bond Measure E: To accommodate growth; repair and renovate aging electrical, plumbing and air-ventilation systems; modernize classrooms; improve technology to meet the demands of a 21st century education; become eligible for millions in state matching funds; improve student safety; all through a comprehensive plan.”
The question remains whether or not the discussions held by previous Boards were enough to constitute a commitment to the project. Current ESUSD Board members were divided.
“We need to revisit this using a portion of the bond money,” said Board member Melinda Melendrez, who represents the Benton area. “We probably couldn’t complete the gym but we could get it going and then use other money. We’re not investing in this school and it’s dwindling away.” Melendrez explained it as a vicious circle, comparing it to an experience she’d had while working at the Home Depot.
We weren’t making sales because we didn’t have enough people in the department and we couldn’t hire more people because we weren’t making sales, she explained. It was a vicious circle.
“We need to throw an investment into the school and make good on promises,” Melendrez added. “There are two local contractors who want to build a gym here. We just have to take the first step and invest in the school.”
Melendrez said Benton was just looking for a 6,000 square foot outbuilding where the children could play sports in the winter.
“If anyone has a legitimate reason why this school shouldn’t have a gym let me know and I’ll fight you for it,” Melendrez said.
“Can we revisit the bond to see what’s there and see if we can get some money out,” Board member Gabe Segura asked Clark. The answer was yes.
“We need to reprioritize projects and bring some money back to the gym,” Melendrez said.
Since the agenda item stated that the discussion would cover what other options the Board had to explore for funding the gym, Segura asked Clark what the other options were.
“There are four viable sources that I can think of,” Clark said. “Another bond specifically for a gym, a parcel tax, donations, and grants. But there aren’t any grants out there that I know of that would do this [build a gym].”
“We need to review which projects are priorities,” Segura said.
Board Chair John Peters, however, had a different opinion.
“We have spent more time on the gym than any other item,” Peters said. “It’s not exhausted but it’s been thorough. Nobody doesn’t want to see a gym here but I don’t see how a gym you’re describing is feasible with the remaining bond money.”
According to Clark, there is approximately $4 million left in the bond. He said that the money that has been used so far has gone to renovations at all campuses in the ESUSD, including approximately $2 million in Benton. The only school that hasn’t receive bond money is Lee Vining High School because it was completely rebuilt anyway after burning down 10 years ago, Clark said.
“We need something new at the table, funding-wise, to get the wheels turning,” Peters continued. “You can’t just start it hoping to get the money. Other sources need to be identified first.”
Melendrez disagreed, claiming that people need to see the District invest in the school and then other funding sources would be easy to find.
“There is $1.5 million [from the bond] that could have been allocated and would have built something, we can do something with this,” she said. “We can build a smaller gym with room for growth. All we need are four walls, a roof and a floor for now.”
She added that she refused to ask for another bond or a parcel tax at this time.
“We have to look at the whole district and its needs, and the amount of money remaining in the bond,” Peters argued.
When an idea of somehow partnering with Mono County was thrown on the table, Supervisor Fred Stump, who attended the meeting, took the podium.
“I’m getting complaints about this process because people don’t trust you,” Stump said to the Board. “They don’t trust you because they don’t have a clue as to what you’re doing. You need to send a letter to residents to explain your thought process. They haven’t seen the thorough process your describing.
“If promises must be broken, you need to explain why really well,” he said.
Stump addressed the idea that has been thrown around to turn Benton’s community center into the gym.
“The community center is off-campus and I’m not sure a conversion would do you any better,” he said. “If you’re serious about getting the County involved, let me know. I don’t think the community center idea is doable.”
Segura suggested that the Board add the discussion to its next agenda as an action item (Wednesday’s discussion did not allow any action to be taken).
“We haven’t exhausted every avenue,” Segura said. “I’d be willing to do some legwork and I’m sure Melinda would too. We need to exhaust everything.”