Nearly a dozen community members were hopping mad Tuesday evening when the Morgan Hill Unified School District Board of Education voted 6-1 to approve the $7 million modernization of the defunct Burnett Elementary School and transform it into the new location for Central Continuation High School.
The Board’s decision was music to the ears of Central Principal Irene Macias-Morriss, who gave an emotional presentation about the tremendous strides her students have made over the last three years in the realm of academics, attendance and graduation rates.
Her contentment with the decision, however, was countered by a fiery reaction from Capriano neighborhood residents, who live in the surrounding area of the former Burnett Campus in northwest Morgan Hill and are considering hiring legal counsel to fight the approved plan.
The neighbors present at the meeting claimed to be ill-informed about the proposal, having learning about the agenda item from an article in the Times last month. Placing a continuation high school that serves at-risk students smack dab in the middle of an new residential development, they insist, will hurt property values and cause the neighborhood to be a less desirable place to live.
They’re also concerned about increased teenage driver traffic in the area and a heightened potential for vandalism and tagging to a private park within the Capriano neighborhood.
“I do not understand why Central High needs to be moved. Are both Morgan Hill high schools failing so badly that enrollment is increasing in the continuation school?” questioned Roy Bannister, who lives in the surrounding Capriano neighborhood.
According to the district office, there are approximately 150 students at Central throughout the school year. Since there is a grading period every six weeks, new students can come in at that time and replace departing students who have caught up on their credits and return to one of the two high schools or await graduation at the end of the school year in June. Central's maximum capacity is 150 students.
Bannister asked why MHUSD can’t focus on using dollars from the voter-approved $198 million Measure G bond – which will pay for the Burnett renovations – “to improve our high schools now?”
Measure G funds were approved with 64 percent vote in November 2012 and are designated for capital improvements. The money is controlled by MHUSD, not the state or federal government.
Capriano resident Mary Bacca pointed out that “I voted for Measure G, but this is not what I thought it was going to be used for.”
Bacca said she would rather see the Charter School of Morgan Hill, which opened its doors in August of 2001 and is located seven miles north of Morgan Hill on Monterey Road, move to the Burnett location.
Burnett School, located at 85 Tilton Ave., was closed in June of 2009 in a cost-cutting move by the district. The closure has saved the district $400,000 annually.
Central, Bacca reasoned, should be moved to the charter school’s site. She says there is ample space there to expand the campus and services as Central’s enrollment steadily increases.
Bacca also pointed out: there are 216 homes in the Capriano family neighborhood with 108 more new homes approved for construction this year. She said Burnett would be better served as an elementary school for the influx of new families.
“I can speak for the community as a whole. Everybody we’ve talked to in the community, nobody is happy about this,” said Bacca. “We’re very upset. We’re very concerned and we feel as a community we weren’t consulted.”
Board Trustee Rick Badillo cast the lone opposing vote to move Central to the Burnett site.
“I thought it needed some more thought process and advanced planning,” he said. “I understand we have a sense of urgency to get the facility ready for next school year. But that doesn’t mean we can’t utilize that facility for something else as well.”
MHUSD Superintendent Wes Smith said he anticipated opposition from the Capriano neighborhood.
“Whenever you open a school that’s not an elementary school, residents are concerned because there’s a value to having elementary schools in a housing development,” he explained.
Smith added: “I respect those opinions.”
He said any messages sent to him regarding the public’s concerns were forwarded to the School Board prior to the meeting. Smith also questioned how many of those residents actually have children in the MHUSD school district.
He said the district already has a master plan for transforming the Burnett Campus into not only a home for the Central students but also more of a community school with technical education courses such as cooking classes and a young mothers program, complete with a day care center that will serve additional families from the surrounding community at a reduced cost.
But some neighboring residents including Miguel Wong - who just bought a family home in the Capriano area and has a young child who will soon be enrolled in elementary school – feels he’s been duped.
Wong was under the impression that Burnett was a temporary closure and would reopen as an elementary school for new families in the growing neighborhood.
“It was built as an elementary school. Why are they destroying an elementary school to build a high school?” Wong questioned. “It seems like a waste of money and there’s a lot of young families in our community and we want a (neighborhood) elementary school to send our kids to.”
The School Board’s decision to use nearly $7 million in Measure G funds will only cover only the phase one modernization plan, which will make the Burnett facility suitable for Central students to move into by the start of the 2013-2014 school year.
The phase one renovation proposal, outlined by the San Jose-based McKim Design Group at last month’s board meeting, consists of technology upgrades and complete renovations to the current classrooms; roofing repairs on the buildings; installation of a fire-alarm; clocks; PA and class bell systems; as well as flooring and cabinetry work in the kitchen.
At Burnett there are four classroom pods, an administration building, a multipurpose building, a few portables and a warehouse. There are 20 classrooms total, which will be completely refurnished with new windows, finishes, cabinetry, walls and lighting.
In light of growing enrollment at Central, Bannister doesn’t understand why the district can’t just expand the current Central site. Smith, however, said Central sits on the smallest lot of any school in the district and has no room for expansion.
“I think this is a great idea, not to just benefit our (current) students but give so much more opportunity for all the other students out there,” said Central senior Lillie Cansada, one of six classmates who spoke at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “It would make a lot of people’s lives way better.”
Scott Forstner • Staff writer