Minutes after three new trustees were seated on the Sonora Union High School District board on Tuesday night, a special meeting was scheduled for Monday to review, and potentially abandon, the sale of 112 acres of Wildcat Ranch to the Sonora non-profit The Park Foundation.
“I want an open board discussion about the ways we could postpone or cancel the sale, or give the public a chance to weigh in,” said new board president Jim Riggs after the meeting.
The idea for the special meeting originated with a recommendation from trustee Kimberly Norton to hear each of the three new board members perspectives on the sale.
Norton was the lone no vote on the sale of the ranch, which was approved by the previous board during a special meeting on Dec. 4. The sale approved the transfer of 112 acres of Wildcat Ranch, located at the corner of Tuolumne Road and Wards Ferry Road, to The Park Foundation for $1 million. The sale included a series of joint-use agreements for tennis courts on The Park Foundation property and for district use of a cross country course, which weaves through the property.
Riggs proposed the special meeting, which was approved for 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 17.
“There's certainly been a perception of a lack of transparency on it,” Riggs said, noting that at least “one other party expressed interest” in the ranch.
The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau gave a letter to the board at the previous special meeting expressing an interest in opening preliminary negotiations.
Only Riggs used the verbiage of “abandon” when referencing the special meeting, but Andal said that the meeting would be an opportunity to quell “community unrest” surrounding the negotiation process.
“I think that alone this would satisfy some the community members to see that it’s actually being discussed as a new board,” Andal said.
Riggs said he was not endorsing nullifying the deal and instead felt the new board members should be able to weigh in on the decision.
The legality of a cancellation of the agreement and whether the district would be open to legal challenge by The Park Foundation has not been determined.
Superintendent Mark Miller said he would ask if district counsel would be available to be on call during the meeting in case the board members had any questions about the legality of their decisions.
In response to an inquiry from Andal, he also added that the special meeting on Monday would be a “perfect time” to have a discussion on how the $1 million could be allocated.
Though Miller said at the previous meeting he would like to see the payment used to put up a barn or structure on the property retained by the district, the allocation of the funds has not been decided by the board. The district would retain 25 acres for an agriculture ranch.
Sonora High School agriculture teacher Stacey Ingalls said after the meeting on Tuesday night that she would support an abandonment of the agreement.
“I am not surprised that they want to look into whether this is in the best interest of the district to sell the ranch,” she said, “I just want them to make sure, whether the decision is to move forward or to abandon, that they are supportive of the decision as an entire board.”
The agreement calls for a closure of escrow by March 31, 2019, when $500,000 is due from The Park Foundation. A phased payment process would last until March 31, 2020.
Before the new board members were sworn in, some old members appealed for them to consider and support the agreement.
Rob Lyons, Kathy Ankrom and Jeff Norstrom did not run for reelection.
“Remember your constituents are district wide and not just the few people who attend your meetings,” said Lyons, who said the decision on the ranch was not a “rush event.”
Trustee Jeanie Smith, who remains on the board, also identified the sale of the ranch in a series of accomplishments over the past eight years.
“The culmination of those efforts was last week when we actually sold a portion of it to the Park Foundation,” she said.
Smith said the property was “unused for many years” and The Park Foundation had “marvelous plans to develop the property.”
Ankrom (who was not present for the Wildcat Ranch sale vote), Lyons, and Norstrom were given glass awards at the beginning of the meeting and left before the special meeting was scheduled.
Other factors regarding the sale of the ranch, including a Brown Act violation accusation and the future of the cross country course lingered from the previous meeting on Dec. 4.
Chinese Camp rancher Dick Gaiser, a former member of the district advisory committee that recommended the district not sell the ranch in September 2017, said the district may have violated the Brown Act by not posting the agreement detailed on the agenda 72 hours before the meeting.
Miller reinforced, as he did on Dec. 4, that the district has not violated the Brown Act because only 24 hours were required to post the agreement. The agreement was posted online with the agenda 26 1/2 hours before the start of the meeting, Miller said on Dec. 4.
Also on Dec. 4, the board issued unconditional commitment letters to Gaiser and Tuolumne County Farm Bureau representative Shaun Crook in response to the charge that they violated the Brown Act by allowing Park Foundation representatives into an Oct. 23 closed-session meeting regarding the potential sale of the Wildcat Ranch.
Kirsti Dyer, another former member of the district advisory committee, raised concerns that the cross country course passed through both the district property and the parcel sold to the Park Foundation.
“When the fences go up you do not have a working cross country course,” she said.
Fences splitting the properties could have a gate allowing passage, she said, or the parcel could be amended to retain the cross country course on a single property.
Miller and Lyons both said that the Park Foundation had committed to the maintenance of the cross country course and would continue to operate it.
The new board also bucked tradition by curtailing the district meeting schedule to once a month in 2019.
“I think the board is here to oversee, not necessarily control,” Norton said.
The motion to have one meeting a month was proposed by Andal. He, Riggs and Norton voted in favor, while Smith and Scott opposed.
Andal and Riggs said special meetings could be scheduled in cases of urgent need, but said previous experience at other school districts taught them that a single meeting a month was adequate.
Smith argued that meetings would drag late if there was only one a month, potentially to four to five hours long.
“The prior board was reprimanded for special meetings,” Smith said. “There is some wisdom where you have time to discuss things and make good decisions.”
Miller said he would need additional authorizations to approve overnight field trips, fund transfers and hiring to keep the district functioning on only one meeting a month.
The board said certain powers would be delegated to Miller after a review of relevant board policy.
The single meeting a month schedule will begin in January.
The new board also heard a presentation from Chief Business Official Dana Vaccarezza on the first interim budget report, which projected total revenues at $16,349,107 and expenditures at $15,884,189.
The budget outlook for the year changed since July 2018, she said, due to lower enrollment than was originally projected.