After six years, just three houses have been built at Ventana Hills, a planned neighborhood of million-dollar-plus homes in the Sierra foothills about halfway between Clovis and Prather.
Granville Homes President Darius Assemi says the recession was largely responsible for dampening sales of the high-end homes, but he suspects there might be another reason. "The first question people ask when they come to our sales office is, 'What's the school district?' " he said.
The answer is Sierra Unified.
Last week, Assemi made a pitch to Sierra Unified trustees: Give Ventana Hills homeowners a choice between Sierra and Clovis Unified.
The suggestion didn't go over well. "Our district must protect our territory and protect our programs by protecting our enrollment," said Superintendent Melissa Ireland, who added that Granville was aware of the school district when it bought the land.
The dispute between Granville and Sierra Unified is one being played not just locally, but across the state, said Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell.
One example is Minarets High School in eastern Madera County, which started attracting students from -- and drew the ire of -- the nearby Yosemite Unified School District.
It wasn't always this way for Sierra Unified.
At one point, Ireland said, the district freely granted transfers. But that was when money was plentiful in the district, thanks to a booming foothills economy driven by tourism and logging.
For the past decade, however, the district has fallen on hard times. Jobs have disappeared and the district is stuck paying for its new Foothill Middle School out of its general fund after voters rejected bond measures.
Two elementary schools were closed because of budget troubles. Enrollment -- and, thus, money -- has been declining for a decade.
The change has made Sierra Unified determined to stabilize its enrollment, because attendance money is vital to help the district survive financially.
"To keep programs for kids, you have to keep kids," Powell said.
But Assemi has a challenge as well, and that's selling homes. If he does, he says, Sierra Unified will benefit. If homeowners have a choice of school districts, it will help spur sales of the 91 home sites in Ventana Hills.
If homeowners choose Clovis Unified, Assemi said, Sierra Unified wouldn't get state money for the students, but it would get development fees and increased property tax dollars.
But Sierra officials say development fees -- possibly near $1 million -- would only be a one-time cash infusion, and the higher property taxes would make the district less dependent on the state for money. Under complicated state-financing formulas, the increased property tax value would mean no new attendance money for the district, both Powell and board President John Maxwell said.
Despite the fiscal challenges, Ireland said Sierra Unified still has a lot to offer, including high scores on state tests, small class sizes, a high number of advanced placement courses and an award-winning agriculture program.
"In order to protect those things, we feel like we need to hang on to our students," she said.
Assemi likes Sierra Unified, too. "The setting for Sierra High School is incredible, and it can provide many academic and athletic opportunities that may not be available elsewhere," he said.
He is willing to market Sierra Unified schools to prospective homebuyers.
Still, he wants to give Ventana Hills homeowners a choice. Despite what their district can offer, Sierra officials worry they'll end up losing if homebuyers can choose between their district and the popular Clovis Unified.
"Clovis Unified is a good district -- and so are we," Ireland said. To let parents opt for Clovis schools, she said, would send a "horrible message" that a Sierra education didn't measure up.
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