Artist rendering

This artist rendering shows some of the possible upgrades that would occur if Amador and Argonaut high schools were consolidated. The combined high school would be located at the current Argonaut High School campus.

You can look back at the history on the subject, point fingers and blame – but that’s not going to solve anything and for Amador County Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Torie Gibson, it’s time to look to the future.

“It’s a conversation that has to take place,” said Gibson. “If we are going to ask for an $80 million bond issue to build the future of our school district, we need to not only have a plan that specifically addresses exactly where every penny will be spent at each school site, but we also have to address the Capital Outlay Projections and decide if consolidation of schools and reconfiguring the Amador County Unified School District (ACUSD) is the direction we want to take. I have a fiduciary responsibility to the families, staff and tax payers and we have to look to the future of the school district, 10 years, 20 years and 50 years down the road. We want to make the most of our investment into school sites, and some of them are in miserable shape.”

Consolidation is not a new idea. Neither is a bond issue. Both subjects have a history and are intertwined in what could be a new future for ACUSD. Gibson also knows the subject is far from an easy one, some would even say political suicide, but nevertheless she’s prepared to bring the consolidation conversation to the Board of Trustees.

ACUSD began the discussion of consolidation in March of 2013 when the ACUSD Board of Trustees eventually formed a 36-community member committee to do a 10-month study on the possible need to consolidate schools in Amador County. From February 2014 to April 2015, a series of presentations and final recommendations were made to the School Board with no final vote. Known as the 7-11 Committee Report, on April 8, 2015, the committee presented its findings.

“After careful consideration, this committee ultimately concluded that changes to the current two high school configuration should be made. The Committee did not reach this recommendation lightly, recognizing the long-standing and important traditions are tied to the two current schools.”

The School Board made no final vote. Then in November 2016, a resolution (2016-2017-011) was created and approved that kept all junior high schools and high schools in the ACUSD status quo for the “foreseeable future.”

So how did the consolidation conversation come back up?

At the core of the issues facing ACUSD is the Capital Outlay Budget Projections for each school site and ACUSD facility buildings. Those projections show a need for $168 million in repairs in 15 school sites and ACUSD buildings. As you might imagine, some sites are in far worse shape than others with critical needs. The critical needs for each site have been evaluated and are projected to be the following: Ione Elementary School is projected to need nearly $31 million in critical repairs and is in the worst shape among the elementary schools. Jackson Elementary and Sutter Creek Primary both have nearly $7 million in critical needs, with Pine Grove and Pioneer Elementary each needing close to $3 million. Jackson Junior High: $10 million. Ione Junior High: $3 million. Amador High School: $8 million. Argonaut High School: $3 million. All while costs continue to rise.

To read the entire Amador County Public Schools Outlay Budget Projections, click here:

“We have to have a bond pass to help us get our facilities repaired and updated,” said Gibson. “I think our community would be shocked at some of the sites and the issues. I’ve seen water in electrical outlets, doors that are rotted, flooding in classrooms, all sorts of problems. It’s really sad. It hurts the kids and staff. I want everyone to feel proud of where they come to be educated and work. Schools are the center of our county and we need to own that. Then you have to look at – if a bond passes – is it worth investing in a site that is so far gone. A dollar spent at one site can mean a lot more than a dollar at another. That’s where you come back to the consolidation and what you could do to stretch your investment and get the most for your money. It was not my plan to bring this back to the surface a year ago. However, after listening, learning and educating myself on all needs … I have no choice professionally and ethically.”

The proposed consolidation would close Ione Elementary School and move it over to the Ione Junior High School campus. Jackson Junior High School and Ione Junior High School would be combined and move to what is now the Amador High School campus with a student population of 727. Amador and Argonaut high schools would be combined into one high school at the Argonaut High School site with a student enrollment of 1,165.

The net result of consolidation, a reduced Capital Outlay of $48 million from two sites that require some of the most significant capital improvements – Ione Elementary and Jackson Junior High.

“In addition, post consolidation, we would look to merge Sutter Creek Primary with Sutter Creek Elementary and use the sale of Sutter Creek Primary to support the needs for expansion so all TK-6 grade students could be on one campus,” Gibson said. 

Just how accurate are these numbers? Ask Assistant Superintendent Jared Critchfield.

“I’ve spent a ton of time at each school site, opened every door, looked in every corner,” said Critchfield. “When we attempted to pass a bond in 2018, that’s really when we started going through the lists of needs at each site. Those costs, as you can imagine continue to rise. But the numbers are very real. A bond is going to be needed, but we also have to be realistic and smart about how we use those funds. I believe the best opportunity and brightest future is to pass the bond and consolidate. We will consolidate several of the most troubled sites and eliminate the funds required to repair them. We then use the capital that would have gone to those sites to use on our remaining sites. It’s way more bang for the buck. It needs to be noted that we also plan to keep all elementary sites open as we know having younger children closer to home is needed. Our geography does not lend itself to closing schools at our farthest points out.”

Lots of this rides on the passing of a bond.

“If the bond does not pass in November, we will bring it back in 2024,” said Gibson. “There’s no way around it. We have to pass a bond and the longer we wait the higher costs go. When consolidation was talked about 8 to 10 years ago, costs were approximately 4 to 5 times less than they are now. Again, it is about getting our community to support or schools because it’s the students and staff who will suffer.”

The bond issue was very close to passing in 2018, garnering 53 percent of the vote. In order to pass, the bond needed 55 percent of the vote.

“I think we came out late with what we were going to do,” said Critchfield. “As the election arrived, lots of folks were still unaware of the plan as well as misinformation as to what could and couldn’t be done. When you pass a bond, the projects and plans are specific to the bond. You literally have to account for every single penny, and it has to – HAS TO – be used for the intended plan. A bond oversight committee will be formed with representatives of employees and community members to ensure compliance with spending. I also think folks want to know a timeline, or when repairs are going to occur. We will have timelines for every site, specific plans and every penny accounted for. Everyone will know exactly where, when and how the bond money is going to be spent and what it is going to mean for their school site.”

“Bond issues are very, very detailed and projects can’t be moved around or changed,” said Gibson. “Everyone will know the plan and it will not alter. I think a lot of people may have been unaware of that. The same with funding available for schools. The state has changed so much of what can and cannot be done for funding. So, there is a lot of misinformation. Grants aren’t available for what we are talking about. The state has dried up a lot of avenues that used to be used for funding. Passing a bond is what the state expects districts to do. We have to pass a bond issue. If we don’t, we’ll have to start borrowing money to take care of the ACUSD sites and facilities. That can be done, but it isn’t going to be easy or pretty as it pulls resources from other needs in the district. We desperately need to pass a bond issue.”

On Wednesday, May 11, Gibson and Critchfield will make their pitch for consolidation at the ACUSD Board of Trustees meeting at the Amador County Administration Center (810 Court Street in Jackson). Ultimately, it is up to the five School Board members to make the decision as they are the fiscal oversight of the district. 

“I hope community members will attend and be open to listening and learning because school finance and facilities is not as simple as anyone thinks,” Gibson said. “I understand this is a difficult decision we are placing in front of the Board of Trustees, but again, we have to have the tough and courageous conversations. We have to make decisions based on all the information and be transparent with the public.

“The Board of Trustees will ultimately have to decide what they think is best for the future of ACUSD and the students and their families, and staff. If it is decided we don’t consolidate, we will still need to go for a bond issue. It’s just money spent over more facilities and less impact as we try to navigate our way out of a huge Capital Outlay. Instead of having top-of-the-line facilities, we will continue to battle the balancing act of not enough money for too many needs.”

As for what the bond issue will do for ACUSD, the district and Critchfield have agreed to share the plans on what will happen at each school site, timelines and budgets in a series of articles in the Ledger Dispatch. Gibson and Critchfield also plan to hold community meetings to help educate the community and gain insight and input as they know each area in Amador County has unique needs.

To read the complete 7-11 Committee Report on School Configuration mentioned in this story, click here:

The Amador County Governing Board generally meets on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. in the Amador County Administration Building, 810 Court Street, Jackson. Open Session typically begins at 6:30 p.m. Closed Session begins at 5:30 PM. The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 11.