Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Calaveras Unified School District has postponed the construction of a new 500-seat performing arts center in the midst of uncertainty about its budget.

The district's Board of Trustees voted Tuesday to cancel a financing plan for the performing arts center at Calaveras High School and begin exploring other options for money raised by Measure A, a $13.5 million bond measure passed in 2006.

Calaveras Unified Superintendent Mark Campbell described the performing arts center project as "on hold," with the possibility of a less-expensive plan for a theater.

"There will be multiple discussions at public forums, and we'll make a decision," he said.

About $3 million remains of the Measure A money, much of which was spent on the pool at Calaveras High, classrooms and athletic fields. As planned, the performing arts center would have cost $5.4 million.

In May, the Board of Trustees approved a refinancing plan for the 2006 bond money that would have supplied more cash for the performing arts project. The May vote qualified the district for an additional sum of over $1 million dollars in matched state funding for construction projects.

However, the funds simply haven't materialized.

"We're nervous about the state money not coming through in a timely manner," Campbell said. "We were hoping to have some indication by the end of the month."

A few board members said Tuesday that their discussion of the performing arts center had been rushed by a deadline to qualify for the state funding.

"There was just not enough time to make an informed decision about it on such short notice," said board member Sherri Reusche.

One unknown was the eventual cost for maintaining the building after construction.

"I'm concerned (whether) we're able to staff and maintain this building," said trustee Evan Garamendi. "It would break my heart to build a beautiful new building and not take care of it."

The trustees ultimately gave Campbell their consent to cancel the financing plan, halt pending work for the performing arts center and explore other uses for the bond money.Trustee Zerrall McDaniel said she would like future discussions of the bond money to remain centered on the performing arts, particularly the district's "inadequate" facilities for drama and music students.

"The arts are core," McDaniel said.

In response to a question from community member Gregory Gustafson, a school board candidate in the Nov. 6 election, Campbell said the district would face only "minimal" penalties for canceling a contract related to the performing arts center.

The district had contracted with Lodi-based F & H Construction for the project.

"We're in conversations with F & H to see, if we aborted this entirely, what would it look like?" Campbell said.

Site preparation, but not construction, for the performing arts center was scheduled to begin this month.

The nine-school district will operate on a $2.4 million deficit this year, according to a budget report given Tuesday.

If Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed tax increaseis voted down in November, the district can expect to see state funding diminish by a further $1.4 million a year, Campbell said.

Campbell has also said that the failure of Brown's Proposition 30, formally called the Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act, would force Calaveras Unified to consider a range of deep budget cuts.

Those could affect athletic programs, high school and middle school band, class sizes and the length of the school year. Additionally, Rail Road Flat Elementary School could be closed.

"If Proposition 30 doesn't pass, we'll take a punch in the face of $1.4 million every year for the foreseeable future," Campbell said. "That's the one thing I know for sure at this time."

Like most other school districts in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, Calaveras Unified has also dealt with the challenge of declining enrollment. Since 2002, enrollment has dropped from 3,760 students to fewer than 3,300.

Campbell said he expects enrollment to continue dropping by 50 students a year for the next six years, due to a stagnant local economy.