During a vitriolic meeting of the Sonora Union High School District board of trustees on Tuesday night, members of a district advisory committee and supporters of the high school’s agricultural program questioned the legality and ethics of the decision to declare a portion of the Wildcat Ranch surplus property.
The decision was not unexpected or surprising, said Sasha Farkas, a Tuolumne County Farm Bureau board member, but it was “shocking.”
Reading from a conversation on his phone, he said the decision could be likened to a “junkie needing a fix,” and motivated purely by short-term economic gain.
“The school’s done everything in their power to kill the Wildcat Ranch, and this is just one step further,” he said. “Whatever’s there, a park, a lot of us suspect it's going to be houses, they’re just going to complain about the school farm and shut it down.”
Even the board’s attempts to “assuage the fears” of the community by declaring only a portion of the property as surplus, as board member Rob Lyons said, were subverted by an undercurrent of distrust and hostility from the public.
“Is it going to be an acre?” yelled out community member Athena Baker from the crowd, noting that none of the resolution documentation noted the board’s intention to keep about 30 to 40 acres of the ranch, or where that portion would be located.
“This opens up that process for doing that,” Superintendent Pat Chabot said. “We’re negotiating.”
“We need to know what’s going to be saved,” Baker shouted back. “Nobody believes you.”
Other community members questioned the legality of the resolution to declare a portion of the Wildcat Ranch as surplus property, when a district advisory committee was only asked to evaluate whether a single parcel should or should not be made available for purchase or lease.
“We did that with the Dome for you,” said district advisory committee member Kirsti Dyer from the crowd. “I’m really confused how you can do a portion and open up to real estate offers.”
Another advisory committee member, Gretchen Birtwhistle, added, “we were told all or nothing.”
Board president Jeanie Smith said it was never the board’s intention to sell the entire parcel, and countered the legal innuendos from the public by suggesting that the word portion be struck from the language of the resolution all together.
“We don’t need to make that determination at this point,” Smith said of where or how much acreage of the ranch would be retained by the district. “We don’t have to specify that in that resolution.”
Lyons echoed her sentiment, and noted that dreams of developing the entire 137-acre property were outside of the financial constraints of the district.
He expected “a lot of money” for the about 100 acres available for sale, he said, and reinforced the boards intent to “sell part of it to get a bunch of money to do the things we want to do out there.”
One cooperative voice rang out from the rear of the room to restrain the amplifying frustration and contention of the dialogue, from Britain Traub, Sonora Future Farmers of America president and soon-to-be high school senior.
The reference to portion had given her hope that the high school’s agriculture program could still flourish despite the circumstances, she said, and she reiterated her plan for to build a barn on the property as a senior project.
Despite proposals to alter the language of the the resolution, the board voted on the document as it had been submitted. The language of the resolution notes that a “portion of the property” to be surplus but does not identify specifically where or how much.
The resolution passed by a 4 to 1 vote, with board member Kimberly Norton voting against.
“I’m completely against all of it,” she said during the argument to the applause of the crowd.
The vote initiates a many-month process by which governmental and public agencies, followed by private or non-profit organizations, can submit official proposals for the property.
The board will send out notices to select Tier 1 groups, including the Tuolumne County Housing Division, the Housing Authority of the County of Stanislaus, the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, the Tuolumne County Transportation Council, Tuolumne County Parks and Recreation, the California Natural Resources Agency and Department of Parks and Recreation and the City of Sonora Public Works Department, notifying them of the availability of the property for sale. Any of the groups can make non-binding proposal bids to buy or lease the property at any price.
Tier 1 organizations are selected based on specific passages in California Education Code, which governs the requirements for selling public properties and giving certain agencies the first opportunity to submit proposals.
Sixty days after the Tier 1 notices are sent, Tier 2 notices will be sent to the California Department of General Services, the Regents of the University of California, the Trustees of the California State University, Tuolumne County, the City of Sonora, and all the other school districts in the county.
Sixty days following the Tier 2 notices, non-profit organizations, public and private groups, and all other organizations would be allowed to make bids on the property.
An appraisal valued the entire property at $820,000.
Members of the most high-profile non-profit group to express interest on the property, The Park Foundation, attended the meeting.
The group previously proposed a land swap of the 137-acre Wildcat Ranch for a 22-acre property adjacent to the high school plus cash, but the proposal was denied by the board last week.
President Ron Jacobs and Directors Ron Patel and Gail Witzlsteiner did not comment during the meeting.
Jacobs said the Park Foundation would make an offer on the Wildcat Ranch following the four-month period.
Additionally during the meeting, the board selected five superintendent candidates who will interview next week with board and community members.
Recruiting firm McPherson & Jacobson representative William Huyett said the meetings were scheduled to begin the mornings of July 16 and 17, with two candidates interviewed on the first day and three on the second.
Huyett said there were 26 applicants for the position, and he selected seven as suggestions to the board. The board reviewed all 26 applications, he said, but the five finalists selected where culled from his seven suggested candidates.
Huyett said the identities of the candidates were confidential until the board decided to make them public.
“I am looking forward to the interviews this week,” he said.
The board also selected a community panel of seven staff members, seven community members, and one student representative to separately interview the candidates.
The community panel includes Will Sarkisian and Debbie Hopper as two Sonora High School certificated employees, Ed Cassinetto as an alternative education certificated employee, Gilbert Hammerbeck as a certificated administrator (he is also identified as an “alternate”), Dana Vaccarezza, chief business official, as a classified or confidential employee manager, and Danny Hinkel and Mark Alberto as classified employes. Additionally, Vonnie Lefman, ag representative, Kim Baker, band representative, Rick Francis, athletic representative, and Chet White, Gretchen Birtwhistle, Nate Howard and Robert Sinclair as at-large representatives are also included.
Traub was included as the student representative.
The new superintendent is expected to be selected at a board meeting on July 24.