As the Sonora Union High School District moves toward a potential sale of the historic Sonora Dome, they plan this month to seat a committee that will evaluate whether the site currently occupied by the alternative education Dario Cassina High School is surplus property.
“It's not an either/or question, it's both/and question,” said Superintendent Mark Miller, who described the mandate of the committee as “open-ended.”
“What I suggest, given that the district’s mission is to educate students, are there solutions or options that could allow the community of Sonora to save, restore, repurpose the Dome and allow the Sonora Union High School District to provide quality educational opportunities to Cassina, Ted Byrd and the adult school?”
Miller said the committee would not only explore the viability of relocating Cassina High School, but also research the range of conditions that could allow the Dome to have road entrances and parking, thus making it more attractive to potential buyers.
Miller said he had not been presented with any viable proposals about the relocation of Cassina High School and had not yet been convinced it was even desirable to find one.
“I think opening up and thinking outside the box on how we can solve this issue to the benefit of both the students of our district and the community as a whole will allow for a different type of discussion which I'm very hopeful will yield a more positive outcome than the discussions we’ve held in the past,” said Miller.
The district has grappled with ownership of the Dome — constructed over a century ago, abandoned as a structurally unsafe school site after a 1967 seismic inspection and vacated by the Sonora Union High School District in 2010 — as it has become weather-beaten and fallen into disrepair in recent years.
Establishing what’s known as a 7-11 advisory committee is the first step in declaring property owned by a public agency as surplus, meaning it is not being utilized and can be put up for sale.
The committee will issue a non-binding recommendation to district trustees, who can decide how much of the district-owned property between Barretta Street and Morning Star Drive in Sonora can be declared surplus, if they choose to go that route.
Previous estimates during board meetings have said the size of the district-owned property, which includes Cassina High School, a ballfield and the Dome, is about seven acres. Miller said the district was unsure where district property ends in the grass field north of the ballpark.
The dome and two adjacent buildings were declared surplus in January 2018 and are still considered to be so.
Miller said, to his knowledge, the district has not received any offers on the Dome property since it was declared surplus.
Nonprofits such as the Historic Dome Preservation Group have urged the district to move the process move forward, noting the disrepair of the Dome grows more dire with each passing winter.
President Allan Zimmerly said that members of the preservation group have deliberately kept out of the committee process, however, so that the students of the district can remain a priority over the Dome’s future.
“The necessity of the Dome should not trump the educational needs of the students of Cassina High School,” Zimmerley said.
Still, his group intends to keep a watch on the pulse of the committee and its eventual recommendation to determine whether it corresponds with its goal of establishing a cultural museum and art center with offices and public-use spaces on the second floor.
Based on the concept developed by the group, they say the city of Sonora will require approximately 64 parking spots and handicap parking to accommodate the capacity of the dome. The parking spaces would take about an acre in size, he said.
“Even someone else who might want the Dome isn't going to be interested unless there is sufficient parking for what they have in mind,” Zimmerly said.
The group has estimated between $8 million and $10 million for all the restorations and developments on the building, which include fixing a leaking roof, seismic retrofitting, ADA upgrades and building the parking lot.
“I think what happened in the past is still true. There's going to be very limited, if any, interest without viable parking,” said board President Jim Riggs.
Riggs noted it was a “safety issue” with the current entrance and exit system for the Dome, which passes through Cassina High School.
He added that another potential conflict was the ballfield adjacent to Cassina High School and the Dome, which is used for Sonora High School sports.
“We need to know if it’s viable to continue that use there and what are the alternatives,” Riggs said. “It's a complex issue, and we’re looking forward to the committee making some recommendations to be forwarded to the superintendent and school board.”
According to the California Department of Education, Cassina High School is a continuation high school for 10th through 12th grades in the Sonora Union High School District. It was founded in 1980 and serves between 40 and 50 students.
The alternative education site also includes Theodore Bird High School, an independent study program, and the district adult school.
Alternative Education Principal Roy Morlan could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Miller said the district has received eight applications for membership on the committee. The names of applicants are not being released at this time, but they include a school maintenance official, he said.
“It’s diverse. It's not as diverse as would be ideal. But it's a diverse group of individuals from various walks of life with diverse interests,” Miller said.
According to the application, the district is seeking representatives from the business community such as a realtor, a landowner or renter from someone who preferably lives in the neighborhood, a parent or guardian of a district student, a teacher, a city administrator and a district administrator such as a maintenance employee.
Originally, the board had stated the committee would be made up of seven members, the minimum amount required for a 7-11 committee. Miller said there was not a rush to choose from the current applications since the final membership could be allowed up to 11 at the board’s discretion.
Miller said at the Sept. 10 board meeting he would recommend that the committee be selected and determined by the Sept. 24 meeting.
According to the application, the committee will meet during October and November and prepare a report of recommendations for the board during its November meeting.