Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat

Concerned community members attending the Sonora Union High School District's board meeting Tuesday questioned whether the district is legally allowed to spend bond money on building a new aquatics center.

The critics argue that because the ballot proposition for the bond did not specifically mention building a new pool, the district could be violating state law in using bond money to fund the project.

The community members who spoke included former Sonora High guidance counselor Ellen Beck, former Sonora High teacher Mike Macon, longtime Sonora physician Dr. Jim Mosson and Sonora resident Larry Coombes.

Measure J, which was approved in the November 2012 election, authorized the district to sell $23 million in bonds. It cited the renovation and construction of "P.E. fields and facilities" as one use for the money.

District critics said the language was too vague, and presented what they believe is relevant legal precedent.

In March, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled San Diego Unified School District could use money from a $2.1 billion bond measure to fund new stadium lights at an area high school.

Residents near Hoover High School sued the district, arguing it couldn't spend bond money on the stadium lights because they were not specifically mentioned in Proposition S, which voters passed in November 2008, and the court concurred.

The California Supreme Court recently denied the district's request to review the appellate court's decision.

"This is a game changer," Beck told the board. "Things have changed and you need to adjust your plans accordingly."

The board approved the list of bond projects at a July meeting but has not yet voted on the order in which they will be implemented.

A report on the construction schedule was listed on Tuesday's agenda but deferred until the next board meeting.

In addition to a new pool, bond money will be spent on installing an all-weather track, resurfacing the football field, modernizing the cafeteria, and renovating the Humanities Building and the Depression-era Centennial Hall.

The pool will be installed where the tennis courts now stand, and new tennis courts will take the current pool's place.

Sonora High's architecture firm, the Folsom-based WLC Architects, estimated early in the design process that the combined cost of the pool and surrounding facilities, like locker rooms and equipment, would be $4.25 million.

Superintendent Mike McCoy has said replacing the pool would be more cost-effective than maintaining the current pool, which was built in the 1950s.

Mosson accused the district of not doing enough to maintain the pool after it was renovated in 1994, and threatened to take legal action.

"If the board continues its present course, we will sue you and you will lose," he said.

Coombes said he fears the entire bond could be lost if a lawsuit against the board or district is successful.

"I think everyone in this room is working as hard as they can for the benefit of Sonora High School," he said. "So it's not a question of allegiances, it's a question of what's the right thing to do."

Board President Jeanie Smith said the board would not discuss the San Diego court case and possible lawsuit regarding the pool at the meeting Tuesday because the matters fall under "anticipated litigation," which will be discussed in closed session.

The community members expressed frustration with only having three minutes to speak at meetings, but Smith explained the board already held a meeting where people could speak for an unlimited amount of time about the bond measure.

"I understand that now this has kind of snowballed and there seem to be people who now have some interest in speaking," she said. "It's not that we're trying to shut down the discussion. … We try to be consistent and fair so that one topic doesn't get more attention than another topic."

Trustees thanked the citizens for devoting their time to attending meetings and researching bond measures. They also ensured they would do their best to spend the money wisely and in a way that benefits the school and surrounding community.

"I think everybody here is very interested in doing the best thing that they can for the school, for the students and for the community at large," said Trustee Rob Lyons. "Everybody has an idea of what the money should be spent on, what order and all that. … Not everybody is going to agree."