Fresno Unified picks site for new middle school

Plans for a new southwest Fresno middle school finally are moving forward with the announcement Friday that the campus will be built at the Carver Academy site on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said the district has been discussing and planning "this long-overdue middle school" over the last two years.

The lack of a traditional middle school in southwest Fresno has been a source of frustration for neighborhood residents who have accused the district of not moving fast enough to remedy a huge void in their community.

There hasn't been a traditional middle school in the southwest area of Fresno Unified since 1979, when Irwin Junior High School was closed. More than 600 students are bused to middle schools outside their neighborhoods.

Hanson said the new school will represent a "21st century learning environment for our students."

Plans call for demolishing Carver, which sits on approximately eight acres, and building a larger, two-story campus. The middle school would extend north to Church Avenue and occupy 22 acres, including about 4.5 acres of a flood control basin to the east.

There are 38 residential properties, a shopping strip and a church in the path of the proposed campus. The properties will have to be acquired and residents relocated.

Lisa LeBlanc, the district's director of facilities management and planning, said Fresno Unified has had success in negotiating agreements with property owners in the past and avoiding the use of eminent domain -- which she said will only be used as a last resort.

But not everyone supports the district's plan.

Debbie Darden, chairwoman of the Golden Westside Planning Committee in southwest Fresno, said she worries that displaced renters will have a difficult time finding other affordable places to live in this market and economy.

The committee's members preferred a site across the street from Carver, even though it is outside the district's boundaries. However, Darden said, it was the location residents told the district they favored.

"It's very frustrating," she said. "But, I am glad they are going to build a school."

Construction on the school could begin within 18 months, pending approval of the project by the district's board of trustees on Wednesday

. It is expected to cost $20 million to $30 million, and much of it will be funded by federal stimulus funds. During construction, Carver's 115 fifth- and sixth-grade students will be relocated to nearby King Elementary School.

The new middle school is expected to house about 700 students when it opens in 2013.

Hanson said the process has been cumbersome and there were several obstacles, but the district never lost sight of the school's importance.

The district has received initial approval from the California Department of Education to move forward on the site.

And the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District has agreed to allow the district to acquire the flood control basin property.

In a rare occurrence and show of support, all seven trustees were in attendance during Friday's announcement.

"I can't help but look back at this as a turning point for our community," said school trustee Cal Johnson, who represents southwest Fresno.

Trustees were joined by Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who praised the district for its persistence. "Something special is happening here," she said. "If you can't see it, you will soon."

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