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Paso capacity 

San Luis Obispo County's mother boomtown still sports a one-room schoolhouse

A drive through south Paso Robles, across the bridge and down Niblick Road, reveals a flowering of new, so-planned-it-hurts housing clusters. Winding streets connect at preconceived junctures, and neighborhoods wrap around allotted open spaces. Freshly paved asphalt rolls thoughtfully through the hills, opening new avenues for ever-gentrifying construction.

A few decades ago, folks in old Paso would have called the land supporting this manufactured reality the boonies.

The design coalescence, however, abruptly dissolves a few hundred yards off the drag on the west end of the Paso Robles High School (PRHS) campus. Tucked among tennis courts and the faculty parking lot, an educational trailer park awkwardly sits, tossed on the lot to accommodate a deluge of new students at the quarter-century-old campus. The "new" high school went up in 1981 with 1,200 students in mind.

It now holds more than 2,200. Due to a population explosion in the 1980s, the facility proved obsolete almost before the plaster dried.

"The portable classroom units are a lot like urban blight they kind of creep on you," District Superintendent Patrick Sayne explained. "Enrollment is usually cyclical, and those buildings were meant to work with that nature. They were never designed for continual growth."

Even with the ad hoc expansion, PRHS is brimming if not overflowing with students. A recent city planning analysis reported the facility operating at 113 percent of its design capacity. The problem hardly peters off down the K-12 gamut: Pat Butler Elementary, Winifred Pifer Elementary, Daniel Lewis Middle, and George Flamson Middle all harbor more kids than current designs intend. Additionally, three more elementary schools will likely overflow in the next few years if they haven't already.

Administrators argued that student-capacity estimates come from planners, and haplessly include the temporary portable installations now present at virtually every district campus as part of the schools' true capacities. The real crowding situation, they claimed, is far worse than the numbers bear out. Other problems at PRHS include outmoded climate control and energy systems.

"The air-conditioning and heating units fail on us consistently," PRHS principal Ed Railsback said.

Meanwhile, development in Paso continues to spread like wildfire. The city witnessed another 3.6 percent population bump in 2006 due to a rash of completed development across the Salinas River from downtown. If these trends continue, the one-time North County truck stop will slide past San Luis Obispo in population by 2025. That's by conservative estimates.

The city drafted these projections at the turn of the century and used a growth rate of 230 new housing units per year. In reality, Paso hasn't fallen below 300 added units since 1999. A recalculation based on average growth over the last six years shoved the rate to more than 1,100 new residents per year. By that reckoning, Paso may surpass the county seat before the end of the next decade.

Then, in the short view, there's Chandler Ranch.

Proposed to take root on the eastern ridge of town near Highway 46, the 837-acre housing project promises to affect Paso in a variety of ways some more mitigable than others. An economic impact report for the Chandler Ranch specific plan, recently amended, estimates that the development will funnel 546 new elementary, middle, and high school students into the already bloated school district upon completion.

The report predicted that Flamson and Lewis would reach 17 percent over capacity, while PRHS promises to skyrocket to 122 percent. However, the two overstocked east-side elementary campuses of Pifer and Butler would reportedly show the high-water mark. There, post-Chandler Ranch estimates project 1,172 heads at a pair of schools designed for a combined 900 students.

A district master facility study recently proposed the construction of another elementary campus on the east side to compensate for anticipated growth. Plans also churned for a PRHS expansion possibly in the form of arts and technology satellites but the decisive shortage of so-called "hardship funds" thickens the difficulty of that project.

On the June 6 gubernatorial ballot, district administration came as close as ever to seeing the approval of a sweeping bond measure for a slew of significant upgrades at PRHS. The $20-million dollar effort fell by less than a single percentage point despite a historically infertile election for bond measures statewide. After the waters settled, Superintendent Sayne promptly recommended floating another request to Paso voters, anticipating a softer break in November. In July, the school board voted unanimously to give it another shot.

This time around, Sayne anticipates a stronger effort to motivate supporters to the polls. Still, much of what impacts turnout remains the product of greater political winds. The relative scarcity of other bond measures certainly not the case this time and a charged governor race would equally bode well for PRHS. Traditionally, low turnout favors the defeat of initiatives, and the June primary registered among the lowest.

"We're planning to concentrate on our 'yes' voters getting them out and to the polls," Sayne said.

After five consecutive shortfalls, educators at PRHS are holding their breath for a little relief not that there's really any room to exhale.

Staff Writer Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at pklemz@newtimesslo.com.

 

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