The curious case of the half-built school

District is seeking more bond money to complete a high school that an old bond measure was supposed to cover

Wind whistles through naked rebar and rusted steel I-beams at the site of a partially-built high school that was supposed to be completed with money from a 2006 voter bond.

Wind whistles through naked rebar and rusted steel I-beams at the site of a partially-built high school that was supposed to be completed with money from a 2006 voter bond.

Photo by Mark Heckey

Just east of Regency Park, an attractive suburban neighborhood in north Natomas, stands a ghost campus. It stands alone in a weed-covered field without a road or a parking lot. Several brick buildings are aligned in neat rows with concrete walkways connecting them. There are also metal skeletons of rusting iron beams. The partially built structures look like an eerie scene from a zombie apocalypse movie. This is the decaying reminder of a school started in 2006 and never completed—the hoped-for East Natomas Education Center.

The promised high school was one of the major selling points for a bond measure that area residents were asked to—and did—support more than a decade ago. But the school was never built, and voters in Twin Rivers want to know where all the money went before they agree to support yet another bond in the embattled school district.

Galling critics at the moment is the fact that Twin Rivers is formulating a new facility master plan that asks voters to support yet another bond measure. As part of that process, public workshops are needed prior to seeking new bond financing for school repairs, improvements or new schools. But several parents and neighborhood groups want to know what happened to funds raised through Measure G, the bond initiative that 63 percent of voters supported in 2006.

The education center, also referred to as ENEC, was promised as part of that bond in an area that’s currently something of a high school desert. Now, after 12 years of increased property taxes and little to show for it, parents and homeowners are seeking answers.

In response to increasing questions from parents and neighborhood associations, the Twin Rivers Unified School District opened the podium to public comment during its May 22 board meeting.

“Measure G was passed over 10 years ago,” said the first speaker, Carlene DeMarco, chairperson of the Terrace Park Neighborhood Association. “This bond raises taxes for 20 years and the major project financed by the bond, ENEC, never came close to completion. We, the taxpayers, are stuck with the bill for nothing. Now the district has the audacity to plan for another bond measure. Really? Why has ENEC and the use of Measure G funds been swept under the table? Parents are outraged and taxpayer money is wasted once again.”

High school student Carla Lewis told the board the unfinished high school is still needed. She described having to bus to her current campus from outside the area, which impacts her ability to participate in extracurricular activities and sports.

“We need a school closer to our neighborhood,” she told board members. “Please do the right thing and complete the East Natomas high school.”

Another parent told the board that concerned parents’ requests for explanatory meetings with the district have been ignored.

“Now we see a bond measure going forward without parental participation and without proper notice,” said the parent, who identified herself only as Angela.

Board trustees didn’t respond to public comment. Instead, they invited attendees to stay and listen to district staff present cost estimates and projects for the upcoming facilities master plan update that is asking for more money.

The slide show that followed depicted an estimated $500 million in identified repairs, Americans with Disabilities Act improvements and needed fire alarm systems. That list includes a future completion of ENEC, estimated at $44 million. It’s estimated that if the new bond was passed, the school could be completed in 10 years. ENEC is listed as a Priority 2 project in the plan.

In a statement, assistant superintendent Bill McGuire told SN&R that ENEC would be finished “as soon as practical and financially feasible,” but that the district has urgent needs within existing facilities.

As for why the high school wasn’t finished a long time ago, McGuire said it’s complicated.

“The reasons for the stoppage of ENEC are very complex and involved several factors: the unification process that brought the Grant Union School District into Twin Rivers, the impact of the Great Recession of 2008, and the decline in student demand associated with the cancellation or postponement of several housing developments,” McGuire’s statement continued. “In addition, there were complex legal and contract issues in cancellation of the standing agreement with the construction companies. Another external issue was the building moratorium in the Natomas area for flood control and mitigation. These factors created a perfect storm to stop the project.”

The continuing saga of the half-built high school seems to be one more mystery in a long list of unexplained financial questions.

Twin Rivers unified was formed in 2008, merging North Sacramento, Del Paso Heights, Rio Linda and Grant Union school districts. Since its formation, the new district has been embroiled in financial and legal controversy.

A 2011 grand jury report noted a culture of mismanagement and favoritism, and stated, “Money was squandered on lawsuits, money which should have been used for the children’s education.”

Subsequent concerns have been raised about mismanagement of funds, payment of high-cost personnel settlements, and the structure of board elections. The district has significant debt and many aging schools. It also serves the lowest-income and diverse populations of the region.