Parent and teachers from Joe Serna Jr. Charter School and Houston School filled the multipurpose room at Julia Morgan Elementary School in Stockton on Tuesday night for the Lodi Unified School District Board of Education meeting.
In addition to reviewing a status report from Leonard Kahn, the district’s chief business officer, on the project to relocate Serna from its current Lodi campus to Houston’s Acampo campus — which the board approved last year — the board also discussed the possibility of moving Houston’s seventh- and eighth-grade students to Lockeford School.
Under the proposed changes, sixth-grade students from Victor Elementary School who would have otherwise become Houston seventh-graders would attend middle school at Lockeford as well, according Kahn’s report.
Board member Ron Heberle was surprised when he saw the proposed changes, he said, adding that it was the first time he saw in writing that relocating Houston students was being considered.
“That does not sit well with me at all, and I do not agree with that,” he said. “If this was going to come up, it should have come up a long time ago.”
When the board voted in May 2018 to move Serna from its current location on Central Avenue — citing concerns about Serna’s campus such as overcrowding, narrow stairwells and a kindergarten class being taught in the basement — the board intended for both schools to share Houston’s campus in Acampo.
The district would need to relocate six portable classrooms and one portable restroom from Serna’s campus to Houston’s in order to keep the Houston middle-schoolers there while adding the Serna students, as well as install a water tank and pump to support a fire system.
Along with additional electrical and mechanical upgrades and design cost, the current relocation project has an estimated cost of $4,293,146.
“This projected cost is, I believe, well worthy of the term ‘excessive,’” Kahn said.
Houston currently has a total of 158 students in kindergarten through eighth grade — including 56 students in grades seven and eight — and needs between six and eight classrooms. Serna has 360 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and needs 18 classrooms.
Houston’s current campus has 22 or 23 existing classrooms, two office areas, one counseling area, one multipurpose room and one library.
Relocating Houston and Victor students to Lockeford would eliminate the need to relocate portable classrooms from Serna to Houston, Kahn said, which would save the district over $4 million that could be used for maintenance projects at any of the three schools.
Moving Houston’s middle-school students to Lockeford would also give them access to science laboratories that Houston lacks, Kahn said, and provide them with an opportunity to change classes every period to better prepare them for high school.
Dawn Tegen, a Lockeford teacher, said that although her school has a science laboratory it does not have a credentialed science teacher. While Lockeford has 30 classrooms, the school’s budget is also stretched thin, she added.
“We do not have any space on our campus,” Tegen said. “We are packed to the max.”
Despite the potential benefits of moving the Houston and Victor students, Heberle opposed the recommendation, saying that country schools such as Houston and Victor serve an important function in their respective communities.
“I think neighborhoods have the right to have neighborhood schools,” he said.
Board member Susan Macfarlane — who represents Lockeford, Houston and Victor, among other schools — also opposed the recommendation.
“I’m not in favor of moving students, and I’m not in favor of ever closing a country school,” she said.
Superintendent Dr. Cathy Nichols-Washer said administrators at all three schools had been informed about the recommendation and instructed to inform their respective faculty, staff and communities. But Macfarlane said the district failed to properly communicate, as she herself only learned of the proposed changes while reading an article in Tuesday’s News-Sentinel.
“It’s not acceptable to me as a board member, and it should not be acceptable to you as parents, as teachers, as district staff,” Macfarlane said.
Board member George Neely also voiced his opposition to the proposed changes. The recommendation would break a promise the board made to Lockeford and Houston parents, he said.
“We made a commitment to parents of both schools that they would exist in the coming year,” he said.
Joe Nava, the board’s vice president, also made his thoughts on the proposed changes known.
“I think Houston should stay at Houston,” he said.
Board President Gary Knackstedt, however, supported the recommendation. He felt Houston and Victor students would benefit from going to school with other students in their same grade level instead of being placed in combination classes such as those at Houston.
“One of the advantages to that is they would have more opportunities at a larger school than if they stay at Houston,” he said. “One disadvantage, I think, is teacher transfers.”
Michelle Orgon, president of the Lodi Education Association — the local teachers’ union — said that the process for teachers wishing to transfer schools has already begun, which would leave Houston and Victor teachers at a disadvantage.
“Any teachers who are at those sites who want to transfer would need to hope there are openings at the second posting,” she said.
Lisa Graci, a parent of Houston students, thanked the board members who opposed the proposed changes and called for better communication between the district, schools and parents in the future.
“Just because we have fewer numbers, doesn’t mean we don’t deserve a school close to where our kids live,” Graci said. “Please go back to the drawing board on this one. We had faith in you guys when you said you wouldn’t split our school up, so please stick with that.”