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Students or No Students, One District Claims Its Piece of the Pie

Suburbs: In a burgeoning area of the Sacramento Valley, school planning takes the build-it-and-they-will-come approach. Critics say bond money is more urgently needed elsewhere.

October 29, 2000|DOUG SMITH | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

ELK GROVE — This Sacramento Valley farm community is building a new high school that represents either inspired school planning or a blatant misdirection of public money.

The construction site is three miles outside of town in a former cornfield half a mile from the nearest residence, a dusty farmhouse.

Franklin High and an adjoining middle school are set to open in 2002, years ahead of the subdivisions that will one day fill in around them.

"It seems to me that is part and parcel of the state's practice of lavishing funds for building shiny new schools in areas that are not yet developed while neglecting students who are crammed into overcrowded urban schools," said Stephen English, partner in one of the civil rights law firms that sued the state over the way it hands out school bond funds.

But others say the Elk Grove Unified School District offers a shining example of how the state school construction program should work.

The man behind Elk Grove's success is facilities and planning chief Constantine Baranoff, widely admired as a master at the intricate game of collecting bond money.

Baranoff predicted 15 years ago that new development leapfrogging south from Sacramento would boost the district's enrollment from 20,000 to 40,000. He was right, and now he's predicting that enrollment will double again by 2010.

Elk Grove has built 29 schools during Baranoff's 15-year tenure, and state bond money has covered about 41% of the construction costs. That added up to $125 million in the past decade. To keep abreast of future growth, Baranoff must open two to three schools a year. He figures that he'll need another $450 million from the state.

As a condition for obtaining state funds, a district must show that it does not have adequate classrooms for all its students.

Astonishingly, the state recognizes 30,000 of Elk Grove's students, or three-fourths of its enrollment, as being unhoused, the third-highest rate in the state. That doesn't mean that there are any students who don't have a desk in a classroom. The state formula for calculating "unhoused" students counts a percentage of those on multitrack schedules and can include some in portable classrooms.

It also counts students who don't live in the district yet, but can be expected from development plans on file. Elk Grove is among the state's many suburban districts with developments falling around them like hailstones.

The lawsuit contends that future needs in subdivisions such as Elk Grove should be weighed against the long-unmet needs of districts such as Los Angeles, where some schools have been on multitrack, year-round schedules for nearly two decades.

Baranoff says the kids in Elk Grove face many of the same hardships. In fact, when he builds an elementary school, he assumes that it will someday be much like a Los Angeles school.

He starts with a core of permanent buildings. As the neighborhood fills with children, he will double the school's capacity with portables, then add a third more capacity by converting the school to multitrack.

Today, 23 of 29 Elk Grove elementary schools are on multitrack and have the maximum number of portables. He calls them hopscotch schools. They reflect the life cycles of neighborhoods. Someday, he said, the neighborhoods will gray and enrollments will drop. Then the schools can return to optimum configuration.

The hopscotch schools also serve another purpose, Baranoff conceded. The portables and year-round students bump up his unhoused count, which translates directly into more state dollars.

Another piece of the strategy is that Baranoff keeps preparing applications, whether the bond fund is full or empty.

"We are a district that plans and waits," he said. "If I have my site, I have the plan, I get in line. I don't mind the game."

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