ALPAUGH — In this tiny agricultural town in southern Tulare County, the crowing of roosters behind a scrap metal fence mixes with the sounds of children laughing and balls bouncing at the school next door.
But these days, there's also the thud of hammers and forklifts beeping through the otherwise quiet streets. At lunch time, every parking space at Cesi's Cafe, the only restaurant left in the town, fills up with the trucks of hungry construction workers, many only in Alpaugh for the day's work.
Across the street from Cesi's, steel beams are going up on a 2-acre plot where a new gymnasium will soon stand. It's the first phase of a multimillion-dollar project to replace the small town's 70-year-old school buildings, decaying from years of alkali and water damage and now beyond repair.
School administrators have watched the concrete sidewalks crumble and underground septic tank flood too many times. Just a few years ago, a roof flew off with the wind, only to be replaced by now-splitting wood beams past ready for another upgrade.
Replacing the school, whose campus houses kindergarten through high school students, is long overdue, said Alpaugh Unified Superintendent Robert Hudson. But it's taken more than a decade to finalize because of bureaucratic red tape and state funding formulas that fail to address small schools' facilities needs.
Alpaugh, where the median household income is $20,000, is too poor for a local school construction bond measure. The state picks up the bill for new schools in extremely low-income communities, but Hudson said the $14 million that Alpaugh got to build a 14-classroom K-12 school and gymnasium isn't quite enough.
"The regulations really aren't geared to address the needs of small schools and sometimes, when you're a small school, that hurts," Hudson said.
Kristy Mitchell, a daughter of horse ranchers and descendant of Dust Bowl-era transplants, knows the school's troubles as well as anyone.
"When I was in school, there was always stuff happening," said the 2005 Alpaugh graduate, who is now a member of the school board. "I remember at one point, the awnings started falling apart and rotting out."
She wanted nothing more than to leave Alpaugh, and she did, moving to Tulare — "the big city" — before moving back with her husband, who runs a hay company. Most of the friends she graduated with have stayed away, she said.
Now a mother, Mitchell said she understands how important it is to keep the school in shape. She wants her second-grade son Parker to have a safe place to take classes and play sports. She wants the other 358 kids who attend Alpaugh's school to feel a sense of community, too, in hopes of keeping more of them there long-term.
"Parents move here, then either they have job opportunities elsewhere, and they move, or they just want something else. A lot of people want to get out of Alpaugh," she said. "If we had more stuff to keep the kids' interest, I don't think many of them would leave."
Challenged by geology
Alpaugh has long been vexed by the land beneath it.
The small community sits on what was once an island in the now dried-up Tulare Lake. Once the largest freshwater lake this side of the Mississippi River, its tributaries were rerouted for farming, leaving barren, salty land in its drained basin.
Now, the town is surrounded by pomegranate orchards and vast expanses of alfalfa and shrubs, seemingly the only things to thrive in the leftover salt deposits. It's that salt that's slowly eaten away at the school buildings' concrete foundation and now corrodes the stucco walls, too.
When there's no rain, the town's mostly agrarian workers look elsewhere for their paychecks. When there's too much rain, systems like the school's septic tank frequently flood.
Underground, a thick layer of clay prevents rainwater from draining to the water table. The soft soil becomes bog-like underfoot, almost like quick sand, Hudson said. Sewage system pumpers work around the clock to keep rain runoff from overwhelming the septic system.
The alkali damage adds to the problem, Hudson said. State engineers studied how to fix it before the new school is built. The solution: truck in tons of dirt from outside the Valley, enough to stack a 2-acre plot with 3 feet of salt-free soil. The school's foundation will never touch native ground. A sophisticated above-ground septic system costing more than $1 million will also be installed.
There is no scheduled completion date for the new school construction, but district officials hope the work will be completed within two years.
Even with the $14 million provided by the state, Hudson says, the district continues to face big funding shortages that could stall portions of the project indefinitely.
The state's funding safety net for poor schools doesn't account for the unique challenges small districts face, he said.
The state will build enough classrooms to fit about 25 students in each, or 14 classrooms in Alpaugh's case, a formula Hudson says doesn't work. That amounts to about one classroom per grade — not enough when the high school offers a diverse set of college preparatory classes, he said.
Alpaugh isn't the only small, impoverished district that relies on the state for facilities funding. Of the 129 funding requests from impoverished districts that the state has funded since 2008, 90% serve fewer than 800 students. Of those, more than 40% have 200 students or less.
But there's currently no fix for schools that need additional classrooms because the funding formula is codified in California law, said Brian Ferguson, California Department of General Services spokesman. The state tallies the number of students and divides by 25 — or 27, if it's a middle or high school — to determine the number of classrooms to build.
That's frustrating for administrators like Hudson, who says the state should not employ a one-size-fits-all approach. Alpaugh needs 21 classrooms, Hudson said, to house all its teachers.
"I'm sorry we have to offer class sizes smaller than 25, but for us to offer a quality education, it's our reality," he said.
Another state bond measure or extra school facilities funding in the state budget could help fill the funding gap. But with no guarantee of that money, Hudson said, the district plans to pay for construction in chunks, in hopes more money comes through by the time the first phase is complete.
Alpaugh students are anxious to see it done. Senior Kimberly O'Cobain is headed to College of the Sequoias next year but is grateful younger students will have a safer place to study. She hopes to someday come back to Alpaugh as a teacher, possibly in time to teach her twin second-grade brothers.
"I've seen them in elementary (school) and it's just something I'd like to do, to give back to the community, to the school that has taught me so much," she said.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, email@example.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.