For Sale: Rural school and a sense of community
The empty hallways are silent, but unused desks stacked in the classrooms, outdated textbooks on the library shelves and empty lockers are haunting reminders of the students the vacant school formerly housed.
“It’s a functioning school. It doesn’t feel empty and vacant, but it is,” said Ron Hemig of Hemig and Erle Real Estate Firm in Truckee.
In a sign of troubled times for rural schools, the Plumas Sierra Joint Unified School District put Pliocene Ridge School up for sale last month for $2.9 million, with Hemig and Erle overseeing the listing.
Located in Sierra County between Downieville and Nevada City, Pliocene Ridge offered classes from kindergarten through high school, until declining enrollment and loss of federal funding forced district officials to close its doors last year, said Plumas Superintendent Gregg Haulk.
“It was such a great facility; they resisted closing it,” said Hemig.
The 22,000-square-foot school, with expansive fields, seven classrooms, a full-sized gym and even a gardening area on a 20-acre campus, closed at the end of the school year with a total student body of three full-time students and one part-time kindergarten student.
Since its closure, the school’s former students must ride the bus for an hour to commute to schools in Downieville, Haulk said.
“The determination to close the school was a financial decision,” Haulk said. The school’s enrollment was not generating enough revenue to keep the school open.
The school served rural communities with economies dependent on mining and logging industries, accommodating more than 150 students in the early ’90s. But gold and timber extraction declined, resulting in a struggling rural economy, increased unemployment and fewer students.
“It has very much become an area for people who have retired,” Haulk said. Neither a revitalized economy nor population growth seem likely in the short run, Haulk added.
Long-time area resident Mike Miller, who was a school board trustee during Pliocene’s construction, thinks otherwise. The school’s presence once solidified a vibrant, rural community, he said.
“I think selling the school now is extremely short-sighted,” said Miller, expressing hope that the community will rebound in the future.
“The growth in our area is still unknown,” the 27-year resident said. “I don’t think our area knows if our economies will create jobs and living conditions for younger people to have children, or whether it will go towards a retired community.”
Built in 1983, the school was intended to draw a small but meaningful enrollment from western Sierra County, eastern Yuba County and northeastern Nevada County, Miller said. But the rural school offered more than just an education, he added.
“The school was the drawing point for social events,” Miller said. “A school can be a really major contributor to the well-being of a community.”
Although the district looked at other uses for the school, such as a community center or a charter school location, a lack of federal funding forced the district to list the school on the real estate market, said Haulk.
“When you have no capital to invest in something, then those ideas go away,” the superintendent said.
Since the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act expired last fall, which subsidized rural schools in forested areas with federal funds from the sale of timber, the Sierra Plumas school district lost $950,000 in revenue, causing severe cutbacks in employment, benefits and facilities.
Although the presence of the federal funds would not have kept the school from closing, it may have prevented it from being listed for sale, Haulk said.
“The board would have had more funds to look at different options,” he said.
Legislation for the renewal of the timber funds is caught in Washington D.C.’s bureaucracy with a war appropriations bill. A compromise over war funding is pending, but no news has reached the Sierra Plumas district of the rural school act’s renewal, said Haulk, who has lobbied officials in Washington D.C. for school funding.
Money from the sale of the school will be used to improve and modernize the district’s remaining facilities, Haulk said.
Hemig said the school could be an ideal retreat for an urban organization.
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