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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 schedule.
     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, Steck said.
     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.

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