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Napa school board advisers recommend selling former Carneros campus
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Education

Napa school board advisers recommend selling former Carneros campus

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Former Carneros school campus

An advisory committee of the Napa Valley Unified School District has recommended offering for sale the former Stone Bridge School campus in Carneros, which the charter academy departed in June. A vote by the NVUSD board is expected Sept. 23.

Advisers to Napa’s public school district are recommending the sale of a Carneros campus that closed this summer after more than 70 years, and the district board is expected to discuss later this month whether to put the campus on the block.

The longtime home of the Carneros Elementary School and Stone Bridge charter school would become the first of as many as three campuses whose future sale or reuse may be reviewed in the coming years by the Napa Valley Unified School District, which last year shuttered two elementary schools and is preparing to close Harvest Middle School in 2022 amid a fall-off in student enrollment.

On Tuesday, an advisory committee chosen by the district agreed to endorse the sale of the property, a recommendation set to go before the NVUSD board at its Sept. 23 meeting.

The 11-person advisory team, known as a “7-11 committee” for its minimum and maximum membership under state law, met three times starting last month and first endorsed declaring the Carneros school a surplus property Aug. 24.

NVUSD is expected to call the committee back into session in the future to consider the future of the Harvest school on Old Sonoma Road as well as Yountville Elementary, which closed in June 2020.

Expanded and modernized several times during its lifespan, the campus at 1680 Los Carneros Ave. hosted Carneros Elementary for six decades before NVUSD closed it and two other grade schools in 2010. A year later it began a second life as the quarters for Stone Bridge, a charter school that moved there from its previous home on Salvador Avenue in north Napa and taught a low-technology, hands-on Waldorf curriculum, even converting part of a surrounding vineyard into student-raised gardens.

But the Napa earthquake of Aug. 24, 2014 marked the beginning of the end for the site as a place of learning, as ruptured pavement and damaged buildings revealed the presence of a fault passing through the campus’ northwest corner. A 26-inch-diameter natural gas line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. also passes directly north of the property.

With estimates of rebuilding the Carneros school to modern safety standards reaching $55 million, Stone Bridge and the Napa school district spent several years looking for a seismically stable replacement — at various times weighing a move to the Yountville school or the construction of a new campus on Old Sonoma Road — before settling on a relocation to Mt. George Elementary, the Coombsville school that closed along with Yountville last year.

During its discussions in August, the committee debated whether to commit to selling the Carneros property outright or consider leasing it for a smaller but ongoing income.

Ultimately, the presence of a quake fault and gas line on and near the campus would curb the amount of rent NVUSD could collect on the site, while likely continuing to stick the district with liability for the on-site hazards as the landlord, according to Kelly Rem, the district’s general counsel.

“What would probably happen is that district would have less leverage to shift all liability to the tenant,” she told the committee during a virtual meeting Aug. 24. “The more liability goes to the tenant, the less money they’re willing to pay in rent. If the district remains the landlord, there is always going to be some level of liability remaining with the district, which is one of the big downsides to leasing property.”

Furthermore, the most seemingly natural reuse of the site — as working vineyards — may be off the table because of the campus’ small size of 9.7 acres, further crimping its rental value. County regulations since 1990 have required new wineries to span at least 10 acres, although 49 smaller wineries have been allowed to operate because they were founded before the law’s passage.

The property is within Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve, where land use laws strictly limit non-farm uses or dense housing and any subdivisions or land-use changes require a countywide popular vote. Zoning on the school campus would allow only one housing unit on the parcel.

NVUSD’s property committee will later turn its attention to the former Yountville school and the soon-to-close Harvest school, whose dual English-Spanish curriculum will be adopted by a new middle school set to open at the current River Middle School campus in the fall of 2022.

Both of those sites are within cities and could be redeveloped with far fewer restrictions than on the rural Carneros campus. In 2019, an appraisal commissioned by the school district valued the old Yountville campus at about $8 million based on a potential rezoning for up to 75 downtown housing units — compared to only $1.8 million for the Mt. George site outside Napa city limits, which the district ultimately chose to reuse rather than sell.

State law generally requires school districts that sell off surplus land and buildings to use the proceeds for one-time capital spending, and bars using the funds toward salaries and other recurring needs. Mike Pearson, assistant superintendent for operations, told the committee last month any money gained from selling the Carneros land would be steered toward improving NVUSD’s remaining facilities.

Board decisions over the past two years have begun shrinking the physical footprint of the school district, which has seen its student roll slip from more than 18,300 in 2014-15 to just over 16,600 at the start of the new year — and has forecast further erosion to about 14,300 by 2027-28. Fewer students also translate to reduced per-student state payments under California’s education funding model for most school districts, although a temporary policy is funding public schools based on attendance levels from before the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival in early 2020. (That policy is set to expire after the 2021-22 year.)

After canceling plans for a second middle school in American Canyon, trustees in 2019 approved shuttering Yountville and Mt. George, which had the fewest students among grade schools in the district. A vote to close the Harvest school followed this April.

Harvest Middle School students in Napa recently returned to campus for the first day of school. This is the last "first" day for the school. Due to district-wide declining enrollment, Harvest will close at the end of this school year.

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You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or hyune@napanews.com

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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