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Helmers in ‘holding pattern’

Posted: February 2, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: February 2, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Principal Diane Miscione speaks in a classroom at Helmers Elementary School in Valencia on Wednesday, as she and Saugus Union School District Superintendent Joan Lucid discussed the need for modernization of campus facilities.

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Last spring, Saugus Union School District worked with an architect to design a fresh-looking two-story building at Helmers Elementary School.

The rendering came after meetings with teachers and parents who suggested the Valencia elementary school be equipped with the latest technology for students, new classrooms for kids and work space for administrators. The modernization would have cost up to $32 million, projections show.

But the state budget crisis changed that, forcing school districts like Saugus Union to shelve major modernization projects as they figure out a way to fill budget shortfalls left by California’s economic recession and lack of revenue.
“Right now, we are in a holding pattern,” Superintendent Joan Lucid said as she walked through the school campus on Wednesday. “We have a $6.5 million budget hole, and that needs to be our priority now.”

The district maintains that Helmers is safe and well-maintained, but it is almost 25 years old, which is a natural time when schools receive major upgrades.

“The school itself is clean, is well-maintained and is safe,” Lucid said.

But there are things that the district wants to change. The roofs leak during heavy rainstorms, the paint and carpets are worn and skylights have been filled in to prevent rooms from being too hot or too cold.

When it opened in the mid-1980s, Helmers was meant to serve 450 students. It now counts 908 students, making it the second largest Saugus Union elementary school after Bridgeport Elementary School, Lucid said.

With a need for more classroom space, the district added portable buildings over the years, which takes up outdoor play space for kids.

So the school works with the city to use its neighboring park to stretch out for physical education classes and free play. And instead of a major construction overhaul, school custodians spend breaks sprucing up the campus with fresh paint jobs, new carpeting and roof repairs.

In good financial years, the state would provide matching funds for school districts to complete modernization projects.

But that’s changed as the state has spent the last five years cutting public education to close its own budget gap, leaving school districts to figure out ways to make cuts that are as far away from the classroom as possible.

As educators wait for the state to turn around, Saugus Union and Helmers leaders are firm to say that teachers and staff work hard to make sure students have the same opportunities as they do at any other school.

“The school is not the building,” Lucid said. “The school is the people in the building.”


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