With the Sonora Dome and Wildcat Ranch Advisory Committee recommendation to keep the entire 138-acre ranch property now officially submitted to the Sonora Union High School district, the fate of the land now rests in a forthcoming decision by the Board of Trustees.
Over two months and five meetings, the members of the committee were continually reminded that their recommendation would be non-binding, and that, despite their representation of community, student, business or historical interests, the board would ultimately decide whether to sell, lease or keep either a portion or the entire ranch.
Sonora High School agriculture teacher and advisory committee member Stacey Ingalls said community members from the ag program and career and technical education program (CTE), were preparing a united front to reaffirm that the land should be kept for development and enrichment of the student body.
“I've had to really start thinking, like, what now?” Ingalls said. “We can't fight this fight alone. The ag department and the ag community has, I feel, been fighting it alone. This has to be all of us on the same page and fighting for the same cause.”
If other school programs and agriculture-affiliated organizations can determine an investment and benefit from the property, she said, then more voices could contribute to forming a vision for a district solution.
“That kind of helped me spur that direction of, we have to get our supporters and include them in it so they don't feel like they don't have anything connected to it,” she said.
Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Pat Chabot said he expected the board to “deliberate for what I’m assuming will be several meetings” before a decision is reached.
“We haven't gotten an idea to what the board members think. It's going to take time to come to a consensus for what we want to do going forward with both those properties,” Chabot said.
The most pressing obstacle to the development and enrichment of the Wildcat Ranch has been its distance from the Sonora High School campus, Chabot said, which limits student participation in core classes and levies a mounting cost for transportation.
“It's difficult to get our students out there. It's difficult to get our maintenance out there,” he said. “Having a property right on our campus would be fantastic, but we don't have that here so we are going to try to find a way to work through that.”
Current uses shadowed by the past
The agriculture department now uses about 15 acres of the property for livestock facilities, raised garden beds and the parking lot. One small parcel is rented to a cattleman who keeps 15 of his cattle on the property.
Except for a Sonora High School cross country course that winds through the Wildcat Ranch, located at the corner of Tuolumne Road and Wards Ferry Road, much of the open grassland is free for any sort of development, whether it be commercial, agricultural or mixed.
“I don't know the opportunities that could be solutions out there. It could be limitless. 139 acres is really a lot of property,” Ingalls said.
But the old guard of the agriculture community have attended meeting after meeting of the advisory committee and Board of Trustees demanding some form of recompense for the original 120-acre Jamestown agricultural campus, which was sold for $2 million dollars in 1984.
The former campus, just off of Highway 108, housed pens, a barn with four wings, a full metal shop with a classroom, two portable classrooms and a total of four teachers.
The property was purchased by the Sonora Mine Company as a part of a $42 million open-pit gold mining operation, the proceeds from the sale were intended to establish a renewed agriculture program, or even the site of a new school campus.
By the time the current Wildcat Ranch parcel was purchased four years later, an additional $200,000 per year promised to the school by the Sonora Mine had never surfaced because the company had gone bankrupt.
Chabot previously noted that, according to former Superintendent Michael King, the Wildcat Ranch property was purchased for $750,000. County assessor documents indicate that a portion of the property was given to the Sonora High School District from the Fibreboard Corporation, a subsidiary of Southern Pacific Industries, on June 20, 1988. There was no transfer tax associated with the parcel of land.
About $400,000 remains in Fund 40 of the district budget and is assigned for an agricultural farm.
For multiple agriculture advocates, the new discussions on the Wildcat Ranch offer foreboding recollections of broken promises and misleading intentions.
The new agriculture campus never materialized, and just this year, Ingalls faced a 40 percent cut to her schedule while still struggling to acquire complete funding for the agriculture program.
92 students are enrolled in at least one ag class at Sonora High School, up from around 72 students when Ingalls started at the school three years ago.
At its current level, the program requires $40,000 a year to function, Ingalls said, not including her salary.
A state incentive grant provided $6,939, which is supposed to be matched by the district. The district fell short of that by about $500 in the past year, Ingalls said. The rest of the money, around $26,000, for student conference travel and course materials, is contributed by the Future Farmers of America, the Ag Boosters Program, and community fundraisers.
“They are turning their back on how we are going to fund it,” Ingalls said. “That's where I have a lot of frustration with that. There isn't any other discipline that has to fundraise to have a program. We are not extracurricular, like a sport.”
The future of Wildcat Ranch
Advisory committee member Dr. Kirsti Dyer said that the board members were “still trying to find that magic number” to determine “what's the minimum acreage it takes to run an ag program” for Sonora High School.
“I kind of thought it was over when we made the proposal but, after seeing the last meeting, I really don't get the feeling that it's over,” she said.
At the previous board meeting, board members made inquiries to the visiting Gregori High School and Modesto High School students on the amount of acreage their campus ag program uses.
Gregori High School, with a population of about 2,000 students, uses about three acres, located on their campus, a supervising representative responded. Sonora High School has an enrollment of about 950 to 980 students.
The amount of land used by the Sonora High School ag program could be increased, Ingalls said, but the increase would need to be commensurate with an additional increase in funding to staff and to develop the land.
“Our hands have been tied for so long we don't want to settle for 25 acres. But obviously when everyone comes to the table and when we see who needs what, I think that will define how many acres the ag department could totally utilize and benefit from,” she said. “So I can't tell you it would be 50 or 10 or whatever. I don't want to limit the opportunities we have there.”
Ingalls noted that the Wildcat Ranch was ripe for development on more cost-productive agriculture, additional livestock pens and landed crops that could produce additional funds for the program.
Like Ingalls, Dyer voted in support of keeping the ranch in district ownership and recognizing a diversity of visions to utilize the unused land. Already, she said, the cross country course at the site designates Wildcat Ranch as a mixed-use education property. The cross-country program should also be included in any discussions about the development of the land, she said.
“The cross-country course seems sort of incidental to them. If we were talking about getting rid of the football field, the community would be up in arms,” she said.
The committee meetings were useful, she said, but failed to properly allow the community to contribute to brainstorming.
“Maybe those things need to happen,” she said. “My thoughts for the whole process, when I first started doing it, is if you're selling the dome ,you're selling the past. If you're selling the ranch, you're selling the future.”
During her presentation to the board on the advisory committee’s recommendation, chairperson Connie Williams noted the committee consensus that “the school district does not hold the ag program to the same level as football and the swimming pool for which bonds were passed to upgrade and build facilities.”
Still looming over the forthcoming board discussions is the possibility of a sale of the Wildcat Ranch property.
Two organizations gave presentations to the advisory committee — the Park Foundation, which proposed developing 100 acres of the 138-acre Wildcat Ranch as a public sports, recreation and arts facility, and Project Feed Our Kids, which proposed a vocational trade center utilizing all 138 acres.
Chabot, Park Foundation President Rob Jacobs and Project Feed Our Kids CEO Robin Walters each confirmed that there had been no contact between their nonprofit organization and school officials since the advisory board had determined their recommendation.
But both Jacobs and Walters indicated that they would be open to submitting their proposals at the board’s behest.
“If the high school was interested in pursuing the option of selling, then that is something we would entertain,” Jacobs said.
“If they are interested in doing something, I would do another proposal to them,” Walters said.