FUSD, W. Fresno district vie for same land

Fresno Unified School District has its eye on a southwest Fresno site for a new middle school, but there's a hitch: the land lies within the West Fresno Elementary School District boundaries -- and West Fresno also wants to build a middle school on the site.

The vacant lot on Martin Luther King Boulevard, south of Church Avenue and across the street from Fresno Unified's Carver Academy, is one of several properties inside West Fresno boundaries being targeted by Fresno Unified for potential school sites.

At stake is not just territory but also state attendance money for student enrollments.

In one corner is Fresno Unified, the state's fourth-largest district with more than 73,000 students.

In the other is the 985-student West Fresno district, a troubled district that recently was returned to full state oversight. Even so, officials say the district's problems haven't slowed its growth plans.

Fresno Unified may have a problem, said Kent Ashworth, the state administrator assigned to West Fresno Elementary School District.

Ashworth has been working with school trustees after the state took over the district in 2003 for problems ranging from fiscal disarray to criminal allegations against board members.

"The issue you have there is it's our attendance area," Ashworth said. "My personal opinion is West Fresno needs to build within its boundaries -- and only West Fresno needs to build within its boundaries."

The land in question has been offered for sale to both districts by developer Terance Frazier, who said he has an option to buy it.

Frazier will benefit if a district builds a school at the site, because his plan is to build offices and commercial development around the school.

He expects the school would use only 30 to 40 acres on the north end of the 120-acre property.

Frazier said he is waiting to see if either district will step forward before he exercises his option to buy the site.

"Whoever gets this school is going to get those kids," he said, referring to the 400-plus middle school students Fresno Unified now buses out of the neighborhood.

Fresno Unified has long planned a middle school in southwest Fresno and has been criticized for not moving quickly enough.

For decades, the district has had to bus seventh- and eighth-graders out of the neighborhood to middle schools up north.

Debbie Darden, a southwest Fresno advocate who has been pushing Fresno Unified to build a middle school in the neighborhood, said the site across from Carver is "perfect" and is preferred by community members.

Other properties would require using eminent domain, displacing residents, she said.

Darden said she and others want Fresno Unified to operate a middle school at the site so students can filter back into Edison High School, the high school in their neighborhood.

If West Fresno built a middle school there, students would have to go to Washington Union High School, six miles away in Easton.

West Fresno -- which includes a single elementary and middle school on the same campus -- feeds into Washington Union.

Fresno Unified officials have yet to identify a preferred site for its middle school.

But Ruth Quinto, the district's deputy superintendent, said the site across from Carver "is one of the higher priority sites."

The district has looked at 11 properties and three have been identified as priority sites, including the property across from Carver.

But Quinto also said all the sites are still under consideration and it will be up to the district's board of trustees to provide staff with direction.

Fresno Unified trustees could discuss the potential sites at their Jan. 27 board meeting, she said.

Another site being considered by Fresno Unified -- at Walnut and Church avenues -- also is within West Fresno Elementary School District's boundaries.

Quinto said it's not unusual for districts to cross boundary lines if that's where the available land is located.

She said part of Fresno Unified's Edison High School is in West Fresno's boundaries.

Planning for schools outside a district's boundaries can delay projects, Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell said.

He has talked to Fresno Unified and West Fresno Elementary School District officials separately about the boundary issue.

The process to move land from one district to another is not easy, he said.

"No matter where your property ends up, if it's outside your boundaries then you have to apply to the Fresno County Committee on School District Organization," Powell said.

It's a fairly lengthy process and the resulting decision can be appealed to the state, he said.

Districts can avoid that if they sit down and iron out an agreement, which could also include swapping land, he said. "If both districts can agree and apply to the county, then it's an easier process."

Ashworth said Fresno Unified officials have not spoken with him directly about the issue but he said a meeting with Superintendent Michael Hanson is scheduled for Jan. 19.

John Pestorich, superintendent of Washington Union High School District, is also expected to attend.

Quinto said she also expects to attend the meeting.

The districts need to reach some kind of agreement -- and quickly -- so as not to further delay putting a new middle school in the neighborhood, Frazier said.

"Somebody needs to come together and put a middle school there," he said. "I don't care who does it."

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