With the prospect of the 995-unit residential unit Sage Ranch moving forward this year — in addition to the 55-unit K. Hovanian development already under construction — the question is simple: Are Tehachapi schools ready to take on additional students?
The answer is not so simple.
In theory, fees paid by developers — and passed on to new homebuyers — will cover the cost of developing needed school facilities.
But a 2020 developer fee study for Tehachapi Unified School District showed that the district is already short of classroom space at the elementary and middle school levels. And about 57 students who live on the east side of the city apparently cannot be accommodated on the district’s Tompkins or Golden Hills elementary campuses and are instead bused to Cummings Valley Elementary School, about 10 miles from their homes.
The 55-lot K. Hovnanian Tehachapi Hills development now under construction and the proposed Sage Ranch project are in the Tompkins attendance area. And overall, according to a 2020 study, the district’s enrollment in 2019-20 exceeded its permanent K-8 classroom capacity by about 366 seats.
Tehachapi High School has plenty of space, but new residential development is going to challenge the school district to accommodate students in elementary and middle school.
Superintendent Stacey Larson-Everson said the amount of classroom space necessary to accommodate the students generated by new housing development will vary based on what school they would be attending, the individual student's grade level, and how many families would elect to participate in an independent study or blended learning option.
Last summer the district renovated space at the Tehachapi Education Center, the school facility on Snyder Avenue in the city that is also partly leased to Cerro Coso Community College. The expanded TILA (Tehachapi Independent Learning Academy) program now operates on that campus and has the potential to help relieve the impact of new development for K-8.
According to the 2020 study, the district’s capacity was calculated including 10 classrooms at the Wells Education Center that cannot be used without renovation. Earlier this year it appeared the district would be able to use about $5.2 million in state and federal relief funds to help rehabilitate those classrooms. However, at the Dec. 13 meeting of the school board trustees learned that it’s possible those funds cannot be used for that purpose.
For the developer fee study, the district calculated its ability to house students in permanent classrooms because, according to the study, the district has a stated commitment that all students are entitled to a common level of service with respect to facilities.
“The Board’s understanding has always been that portable classroom structures were only intended as ‘interim’ housing until such time as sufficient resources, both local and state, became available to construct permanent classrooms,” the study states.
The study determined that 195 elementary school students, 94 middle school students and 129 high school students were anticipated to be generated from the projected future residential units. Most of the projected new housing in the study is from the proposed Sage Ranch project.
Based upon the district’s current classroom loading factors, it would need to construct seven additional permanent elementary school classrooms and eight permanent middle school classrooms to accommodate new enrollment needs.
Tehachapi High School, however, was determined to have the ability to handle an additional 596 students, leaving plenty of room for the projected addition of 129 students.
The study also estimated school construction costs and determined that the district is fully justified in levying the state maximum residential school fee of $4.08 per square foot for all new residential development in the district. It also justified collection of various rates for new commercial and industrial development.
The district’s Board of Trustees approved those fees in January 2021. Superintendent Stacey Larson-Everson said the district does not intend to revisit the level of the fees anytime soon.
According to the latest accounting of school facilities fees produced by the district, for fiscal year 2021-22, the beginning fund balance as of July 1, 2021, was $582,002.13. During the fiscal year the fund earned interest of $8,439.04 and collected an additional $672,086.04 in developer fees. After spending $5,100 for a modernization study the ending fund balance as of June 30, 2022, was $1,257,427.21.
Use of developer fees is restricted by law. Such fees can only be used for construction or reconstruction of school facilities and some other related costs. Developer fees cannot be used for regular maintenance or routine repair or deferred maintenance.
Current fees are collected at the rate of $4.08 per square foot for residential development and up to 76 cents per square foot for commercial development. Fees are collected in conjunction with the issuance of building permits, so they come to the district incrementally.
The 2020 report estimated the cost of a new elementary school to be about $35 million and the cost of a new middle school to be about $74 million. Those estimates included acquisition of property.
The district spent about $2.57 million in 2019 to construct a 10-classroom wing for sixth graders on the Jacobsen Middle School campus. Developer fees helped fund that addition.
“We appear to be in a unique position since school districts statewide are experiencing declining enrollment while simultaneously our community may experience growth,” Larson-Everson said. “We are pleased that our enrollment has begun to stabilize and will continue monitoring its trajectory as well as follow the progress of local residential developments to make sure we meet the facility and classroom needs of the students they generate.”
She said the district remains in contact with the city to be aware of the status of developments.
Although the district makes its plans based on an intent to provide all students with permanent classrooms, logistics don’t always make that possible.
The district has faced space challenges in the past during periods of growth and employed a number of tactics including use of portable classrooms, leasing space at churches and combining students into multi-grade classes.
It’s also possible that some parents may elect to enroll their children in area schools that are not operated by the district. These include Heritage Oak School, Mojave River Academy and Valley Oaks Charter School. About 22 percent of local high school graduates last year were from these three schools.
KHov reports having sold seven of the homes in the 55-lot Tehachapi Hills development near Warrior Park — with seven additional homes under construction. The development is part of the city’s Tract 6216. Nearly 200 additional lots created as part of that subdivision may be developed in the future.
On Nov. 18, 2022, the developer of Sage Ranch submitted a Precise Development Plan for the first phase of the project, the next step toward homebuilding.
Assistant City Manager Corey Costelloe said the city returned its first set of comments on the plan to the developer just before Christmas.
City staff will take the plan to the Tehachapi Planning Commission for review once any issues have been resolved. When the PDP is approved the developer can request a public report from the state Department of Real Estate. The report will include the disclosures the developer must make to prospective buyers as it begins marketing the subdivision.
The city’s approval of the Sage Ranch project remains the subject of a lawsuit filed by the water district against the city in September 2021. The legal action claimed that the city violated multiple state laws in its approval of the planned development. The city disagreed, saying in a statement that the district’s accusations were “unfortunate and unfounded.”
Development Services Director Jay Schlosser told members of the Planning Commission on Oct. 10, 2022, that the lawsuit does not prevent the developer from moving forward with the project. The litigation was transferred from Kern County Superior Court to Sacramento County Superior Court last year, at the request of the city. The parties have agreed several times to extensions of time to provide documents for the court’s review.
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: email@example.com.