Angry community members attended a Sonora Union High School District Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday to question the district’s use of more than $4 million in bond measure money for a new pool and athletic facilities.
Several people said they felt deceived by trustees and hadn’t known money from the $23 million Measure J would be used for a pool when they voted last year. A number of other people expressed support for the project — planned as a 25-yard by 30-meter pool with 10 lanes.
The larger pool will be installed where the tennis courts now stand, and new tennis courts will take the current pool’s place.
Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Mike McCoy said the bigger pool is being planned for three purposes: As a venue for Sonora High’s water polo team, a space for competitive swimming, and for community recreation — since the pool will be accessible to the public.
But criticism of the pool project has been brewing for several months among voters who question the idea’s value.
“I have the feeling that if you had said, ‘Well, we’re going to spend $5 million on a pool,’ that bond may not have passed,” said Sonora resident Larry Coombes. “I’ve always voted for school bonds … but I think you may have changed my mind on this one.”
Sonora High’s architecture firm, the Folsom-based WLC Architects, has estimated the combined cost of the pool and surrounding facilities, like locker rooms and equipment, at $4.25 million.
McCoy said the final price is a “moving target,” since the school’s design team is still deciding on specifications and options.
“Our mantra through this whole thing is Ford and Chevrolet, not Cadillac,” McCoy said after the meeting. “We’re going for a Spartan, effective, efficient pool.”
The ballot proposition for Measure J, approved in the November 2012 election, included the renovation and construction of “P.E. fields and facilities” as one use for the money.
The ballot proposition didn’t specifically mention a new pool, a fact with which community member B.Z. Smith took issue.
She said Tuesday that she had been asked by the Measure J committee to drum up support for the ballot initiative, but wasn’t told that part of the money would be used for a new pool.
“There was no mention of the aquatics center, no mention of improving the pool,” Smith said. “You would have never gotten that bond to pass if people like me, who are old and in the way and retired, hadn’t said ‘Yes, we wanted it to be supported.’”
Before Smith spoke, former Sonora High teacher Angela Brown said Sonora High trustees had betrayed voters’ trust by not describing the pool project before the election.
Supporters of the project, including students and coaches, attested that the existing pool is “outdated” and undersized. Responding to community members who said money should be spent on classrooms first, they described the pool as a “classroom” too.
“The pool’s used by every student at Sonora High,” said P.E. teacher and basketball coach Dan Dona. “I do understand all those other concerns that everybody has about spending money on the wrong things first. … But this is a classroom.
“Swimming and aquatics is a lifetime activity that we can all use and benefit from,” Dona said.
McCoy and other school officials have said the district’s architects have already determined a new pool to be cheaper than replacing the old one.
“The pool we have now is falling apart, bottom line,” said Sonora High Athletic Director Rick Francis.
“Whatever we decide to do, the one we have now is completely outdated and it’s going to come to the point of … shutting her down or losing it, because it’s just not going to work,” Francis said.
Senior Class President and Sonora High water polo player Gabe Runte said the pool was “just terrible.”
“We need a better pool,” Runte said. “The money’s going to be spent either way.”
Several audience members questioned the assertion that the new pool is a classroom with the same importance as academic classrooms and urged the district to reconsider its priorities.
“I’ll go along with what you’re going to do,” said former Sonora High teacher Mike Macon. “But I really think it’s a terrible mistake to spend that much money on one aspect of it that the community, I don’t think, was aware of.”
McCoy told the audience that the bulk of Measure J money will in fact be used on major classroom and campus renovations, including changes to make the school more accessible to disabled students.
The gutting of the Humanities Building and upgrades to the Depression-era Centennial Building will address 75 percent of Sonora High’s classroom space, according to McCoy. He said the remaining rooms have either been updated recently or are in portable buildings.
Projected costs for the renovation of Centennial Hall, which needs new windows and a range of other upgrades, are $2.85 million. A new space for culinary students in Centennial Hall may cost another $200,000.
The humanities building will be gutted and renovated for an estimated cost of $2.46 million. The track and football field may each eat up $800,000.
The projected cost of the existing pool’s demolition and the installation of new tennis courts is $600,000, while the renovation of Sonora High’s small cafeteria may eat up $2.26 million.
Much of the remaining Measure J money will pay for demolition, utility infrastructure work, and other miscellaneous projects. It will also fund “indirect costs” such as design and project inspection fees, with some set aside for unforeseen expenses.
School Board President Jeanie Smith said the pool was discussed as a possible use for the bond money at community meetings in the months before Measure J was passed.
“We are trying to be good stewards of the money,” Smith said. “We are taking your comments, the comments that we heard from the different groups that we met with prior to going out for the bond … and we are trying to address those things.”
Measure J’s next steps involve finalizing the design for the pool, which McCoy said will happen within the next few weeks, and nailing down a timeline for selling bonds and starting projects.