More than 30 people came to a short-notice special meeting Thursday evening of the Sonora Union High School District Board of Trustees to sound off on their views of the board’s struggle with its litigation-embroiled attempted sale of 112 acres of the district’s Wildcat Ranch to the Park Foundation.
A dozen people stood to speak to the board about their concerns for 35 minutes before the board and its staff went into closed session for 2 hours and 15 minutes. They spent at least the first hour discussing a lawsuit filed by the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, in which the bureau alleges the district violated the Brown Act and a surplus property sale process in negotiations with the Park Foundation.
The board spent the second half of closed session evaluating Mark Miller, the new district superintendent who started in August. Jim Riggs, the board president, said there were no reportable actions taken during closed session, meaning that whatever the board talked about — the Wildcat Ranch and Miller’s performance evaluation — would not be shared with the public.
During the last 10 minutes of the meeting, trustee Kim Norton moved to rescind the district’s purchase-and-sale contract agreement for Wildcat Ranch with the Park Foundation. None of the other four elected board members — Jeanie Smith, Nancy Scott, Erik Andral, and Riggs — seconded Norton’s motion.
So Norton’s motion to rescind the purchase-and-sale contract died, and the board took no action on the existing contract.
The district board also voted 5-0 to establish a budget priority input committee, to learn more about how Sonora High faculty, students and parents want the district board to spend its money. The most recently approved district budget has a projected unrestricted ending general fund balance of $1.3 million for 2018-19, $700,000 for 2019-20, and $150,000 for 2020-21, Dana Vaccarezza, chief business official for the Sonora Union High School District, said Friday. Riggs adjourned Thursday night’s special board meeting at 10 p.m.
Earlier, speakers who shared their concerns about the district’s handling of Wildcat Ranch included Kathy Ankrom, a board member from 2010 to 2018.
Ankrom said Sonora High School is in a poorly funded state, it’s among 10 percent of California schools that sometimes requires state assistance, and the district has little or no cash for discretionary spending.
She also said Sonora High community members love their agriculture program and career technical education programs, and that is what got the district into trouble with county and state finance watchdogs. She referenced a state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team’s assessment in November 2016 of Sonora Union High School District’s “rapidly eroding fiscal condition.”
She said she hopes the district, the ag community, and the Park Foundation can work together to capitalize on a land-based opportunity that should benefit students, because presently the only people benefitting are lawyers.
Carol Doud, who attends numerous local government meetings, told the board, “You’ve had the (Wildcat Ranch) land 30 years and you’ve done diddly-squat with it. … I’d pull out of escrow and start over.”
Ron Patel, director of the Park Foundation, told the board he hopes “we don’t look back two years from now and see an opportunity lost. Thank you for the time. Let’s just do this.”
Chuck Lakamp, who runs a facility for special needs adults on Twist Road outside of Jamestown, advised the district board to sit down with the Park Foundation and “pull out of this deal.”
Gregory Crook, a Sonora High student and Sonora Future Farmers of America parliamentarian, told the board the school’s ag program changes people’s lives. He said he personally hasn’t been to a park since he was 8 years old, and he’s active at the ranch every week working on projects he cares about.
Ron Kopf, a developer partnering in a 29-home subdivision planned by Sonora-based Oxbow Investments across Wards Ferry Road from Wildcat Ranch, also known as the Sonora Union High School District Farm, told the board, “I think it’s a win-win situation for the ag community and the district.”
Kopf is also executive director of the Tuolumne County Business Council and he is an elected member of the Tuolumne Utilities District board.
Britain Traub, a Sonora High senior and president of Sonora Future Farmers of America, told the trustees their job is to help students and help families choose to send their students to Sonora High, and if Sonora High doesn’t have ag resources, the school will lose out on students and funding to other schools like Summerville High. A strong ag program will bring more students and funding to Sonora High, Traub said.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.