High school? What high school?

Talk about a seven-year itch.

In a perplexing turnaround, the new high school that was the main goal of a hard-fought Chico bond measure in 1998 may not be needed after all. And even if it is, it could cost too much to build and staff it.

The Bond Oversight Committee met with members of the Chico Unified School District staff and Board of Trustees on April 28 and came away at a loss. How could things have done such a 180 in only seven years? The $40 million Canyon View High School was supposed to open in fall 2002.

“This has evolved into a much different scenario than when we started,” said committee member Gary Fowler. “We’re really at a crossroads. Where do we go from now?”

Back in 1998, on the heels of two failed bond measures, volunteers pounded the pavement to pass the measure, warning that Chico’s two comprehensive high schools were tremendously overcrowded and the problem would only worsen as the district’s population was projected to increase to 18,000 by now. Instead, enrollment has dropped by 700 students at the elementary level, and the district boasts barely 13,000 young bodies.

Board President Rick Anderson has an idea: Consider building the new school, moving most of Chico High School out there, creating a “smaller, more-focused ‘magnet’ school” on the Chico High campus, and leasing the rest of Chico High out to Chico State University.

“We can’t see at this point in time operating three comprehensive high schools in our current enrollment situation,” Anderson said. The cost of running such a school is estimated at $1 million a year, and the district has cut $9 million from its budget in recent years. “Thank God we did not blast through and build the thing. We would not have been able to afford it.”

Another idea, which would have seemed unthinkable just a couple of years ago, would be to lease the land the CUSD just purchased or even sell it outright at a profit. Randy Meeker, the district’s business manager, said not building on the land wouldn’t violate the provisions of the bond because the property was purchased for $5,250,000 using developer fee money, not bond dollars.

Superintendent Scott Brown said the bond was written in such a way that the district has 40 years to sell the bonds. In the meantime, “We have an asset: 50 acres that is almost unparalleled. Just as these [construction] costs are going to escalate, the value of that property is going to escalate.”

Now, news that school-watchers once hungered for—that the land near Bruce Road and Raley Boulevard has finally been purchased and passed all environmental hurdles—is being greeted with little enthusiasm.

“We’ve got permits in hand,” said Mike Weissenborn, the CUSD’s facilities planner. But construction costs have been escalating far beyond the 3 percent a year inflation factor the district had estimated. “We’ve experienced a minimum of 10 percent inflation over the last year in construction costs,” Weissenborn said. That makes the difference between what the CUSD had planned to spend versus what construction would now cost could hit $20 million.

“You either find more money or review what it is you’re looking at building,” he said.

On the up side, the district has completed most of the $7.6 million in projects at the other school sites that were covered in the bond.

Anderson said district staff has been asked to report back in the summer or early fall on enrollment trends and options for the property. “We owe the community an answer,” Anderson said.

Fowler said, “It’s a shame that something that started out so genuine and so focused has been overwhelmed by forces we can’t control.”