A group of Lamont business owners are spearheading an effort to unify two school districts in their community – the first step, they say, in building a high school in their hometown.
Lamont residents have pushed the Kern High School District to build a high school in their community for more than a decade. KHSD has been resistant, citing a lack of real estate and state funding. It has instead been prospecting new schools in areas with more development and population growth.
Meanwhile, advocates say students in Lamont travel too far by bus to Arvin High, are subjected to overcrowded classrooms and are not afforded the same educational and extracurricular opportunities as other students might receive in smaller schools.
Now they’re exploring options to unify the Lamont Elementary School District and Vineland School District to form a K-12 district that could support a comprehensive high school.
“We’ve began looking at ‘could this be possible to have in the community of Lamont,’” Jose Gonzalez, president of the Lamont Chamber of Commerce during an Aug. 21 meeting.
A menagerie of challenges, however, may stand in the way.
The unification process requires a thorough proposal, review and approval process. As of Thursday afternoon, Vineland School District Superintendent Cindy Castro said she and her board of education were not even aware of the plans.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Castro said when asked about the unification.
But that might not matter. A unification can be initiated through a petition signed by as little as 5 percent of voters in a school district; or through a resolution approved by the majority of members of a local governing body.
Chamber of Commerce members met with the Lamont Utilities Board last week.
Although nothing has been filed yet with the Kern County Superintendent of School, the community has begun taking its first steps.
The Lamont Chamber of Commerce – which is made up of multiple board members who work for the Lamont School District, including the district’s Superintendent – recently hired consulting firm Justice and Associates to analyze the area and determine if the formation of a high school and a unification of districts is possible, Gonzales said.
Kern Sol News reached out to Lamont Elementary School District, but did not receive a response.
It’s unclear whether KHSD would oppose the unification plans, which would potentially sap as many 919 students – and the average daily attendance funding – from Arvin High.
Community groups began rallying around the idea of a new high school in December 2018, showing up by the hundreds at KHSD board meetings and flooding public comment portions with cries for greater investment in their students.
Advocates say Lamont is too far from Arvin High, and that students are forced to bus between eight and 12 miles to get to school.
“These kids from Lamont have to wake up earlier every day to commute to (Arvin) high school,” Gonzalez said at a community meeting in mid-August. “In addition, the roads out here are dangerous.”
There are a little more than 900 students from Lamont who attended Arvin High in the 2018-19 school year, according to Erin Briscoe, KHSD’s spokeswoman.
Instead of building a school in Lamont, KHSD officials are purchasing real estate elsewhere, including southeast Bakersfield, where they are projecting growth as a result of new development. The district purchased land on the corner of East Panama Lane and Cottonwood Road – just a few streets east of Golden Valley High School. KHSD cites data that shows there’s more of a need in southeast Bakersfield due to expected population growth in that area over the next few years.
KHSD has been resistant to building a high school in Lamont because it says there are not enough students in the area to warrant building its own high school, the Bakersfield Californian reported in August of 2018. The district also said it would not receive enough funding from the state.
The idea of starting a unified school district came about when then-KHSD board trustee Mike Williams suggested to Gonzales at a board meeting that Lamont should explore that option.
Williams suggested they also have their own bond election to fund the school – something that would prove challenging. The amount of money a school district can finance through bond measures is tied directly to assessed property valuations, which are low in Lamont. Unified districts can only borrow up to $60 per 100,000 assessed valuation annually from property owners.
When it comes to bond financing, KHSD can leverage a sprawling geographic area that includes high value property to cash in for constructing new schools. It’s one of the advantages of being in the state’s largest high school district. The district’s size, and the expertise of the staff it employs on its facilities team, also gives it a competitive advantage in applying and receiving state matching funds for construction.
It’s unclear how advocates spearheading the Lamont unification would finance not only the purchase of real estate, but also the construction of a modern high school, which conservatively costs more than $45 million.
Additionally, KHSD officials have said if Lamont students were removed from Arvin High and placed in a high school in Lamont, both schools wouldn’t receive the state funding necessary to run a high school.
Arvin High senior Alejandro Corona, 17, is bused from Lamont to Arvin High every day for school. He said he feels it would be easier if there was a school in his home community.
“It would be so much easier to have a high school in Lamont,” Corona said. “We don’t have enough time to get lunch. When we do get lunch, you barely have enough time to eat it.”
Breaking away from the Kern High School District is not unprecedented.
McFarland went through a unification process in 1979-1980 to form the McFarland Unified School District so that the local community could have more control and input into educational policy decisions.
Now, however, they’re too small and impoverished to pass a bond measure to upgrade their facilities. They asked voters for a $110 million bond in 2016, a record year for bond success that left most school districts flush with cash. McFarland, however, was one of just 30 schools statewide to have voters reject their bond.
The problem? Despite steady growth in enrollment, McFarland’s district was too small. It’s property valuations were too low. Its residents couldn’t financially support a bond that one taxpayer advocate called “the most expensive” bond in the state of California.
Kern Sol News is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.