April 27, 2002
Fresno School District Board
to raze homes forcibly relocate dozens
of people and business
By Brian Melley
FRESNO - In an aging downtown
Fresno neighborhood of weather-beaten bungalows, where some men
pass the morning drinking beer and others vent about drug dealers,
there's talk these days of bulldozers and school construction.
Word is, an elementary school may be built
right where they live, right on the spot where some of them planted
rose bushes and raised their children and grandkids.
Eviction, relocation and demolition are
mentioned. As a school district sets its sights on razing eight
neighborhoods to build new schools, some say this is welcome news.
"I wouldn't argue with the man if he comes by and buys it," said
Charles Monson, 75, a retired construction worker who has owned
his house for 23 years. "They would get no argument from me. You
know, I might even go to the store and buy them a Coke."
The Fresno Unified School District has come
up with an ambitious $200 million plan to renovate dozens of schools
and build 10 new ones over the next dozen years to make up for a
decade of unchecked growth. While the city has sprawled north, gobbling
up farmland, the district's borders have not grown.
That means the school district, the fourth
largest in the state, must use the threat of eminent domain proceedings
to take homes and businesses for eight of the planned schools. "If
you gotta go, you gotta go," said Frank Finley, 74, who ran a barbecue
joint for years and pays $450 a month to rent his little sky-blue
ranch home in the first neighborhood destined for destruction.
In the 1980s, the school district was overwhelmed
with new students, growing by 3,000 pupils a year, said Michael
Berg, chief planner for the district.
Without the money for new schools, classroom
construction could not keep up with the pace. Bathrooms for 400
now serve 900 students. Mobile buildings were brought in to meet
the demands and help reduce class size. You can't drive by a school
in Fresno without noticing the modular units. There are 1,400 of
them, and they make up a third of district classrooms. The biggest
change, however, came when the district switched to a year-round
Half the district's 80,000 students now
attend school for 90 days and then have a month of vacation. The
rotation allows 25 percent more children to attend each school,
but it also means the schools never get a break. The 23 schools
that have year-round classes are only closed nine days each year,
in addition to holidays, making maintenance and repair difficult.
Last year, voters approved a $200 million
bond measure to build new schools and fix old ones. The new schools
are intended to relieve crowding and help many of the schools return
to a traditional calendar.
The first of the projects is destined for
a neighborhood on the fringe of downtown Fresno. Berg plans to break
the news to residents Tuesday at a meeting at Anthony Elementary
School, one of the schools that would benefit from another nearby
school. Environmental studies could alter the district's building
plans, but Berg is prepared to let people know they may have to
think about moving.
He is braced for opposition. "Some people
don't want to leave because they were born there and they want to
die there," Berg said. Homeowners will be paid fair-market value
based on the higher of two independent appraisals.
With a relocation formula that favors relatively
affordable places such as Fresno, renters can sometimes become homebuyers
with generous relocation payments, said Lou Steck, a real estate
agent who works for the city and is advising the schools. Owner-occupants
can receive up to $22,500 to move. "It's impossible for it to be
fair," Steck said.
"If somebody has spent his life building
a liquor store or a little this or that, all they want is to be
left alone and here comes the public with grand plans for his property."
If everything goes as planned, construction
could begin within three years on an eight-acre parcel of small
apartment buildings and bungalows built in the early 1900s during
Fresno's first suburban growth spurt.
The suburbs now sprawl for 10 miles and
this neighborhood has become the inner city. Census figures show
that 42 percent of the residents are school-aged and 77 percent
are Hispanic. The average home will probably fetch about $60,000,
At midday Thursday, the streets were full
of activity. People sit on worn furniture on their porches, some
smoking, some drinking beer, others just watching passers-by. A
rooster cries out, dogs prowl vacant lots and a bicycle carrying
three children drifts by.
Those who live there say the neighborhood
is a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes. Rosie Perez, who lives
with her mother and six other family members on an adjacent street,
said she's been propositioned in front of her house.
"Nobody here likes it," she said. "We feel
like we're stuck." The school district is aware of the neighborhood's
reputation, but it's not a major concern. "What schools do is they
improve neighborhoods," said district spokeswoman Jill Marmolejo.
"They help to increase property values and help to restore a sense
of community to a neighborhood. ... Any area of this city is going
to have issues."
Not everyone is happy about the prospect
of leaving. Garrena Graham, 27, grew up here and now lives around
the corner from her father. "I would hate it," Graham said. "I know
everybody. It's memories. Money can't take memories."
© 2001 cctimes
and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.