The Jacobs Junior High School Campus, Then and Now

For the past thirty years, Eureka City Schools has been a changing school district. Here on the North Coast, the timber industry has had a large impact on our economy, both positive and negative. While there have been several other large industries critical to our economy, timber is arguably what put the greater Eureka area on the map and drove our building and population.

The peak of the timber industry in Humboldt County was in the early 1950’s. While it was in a slow decline up until the environmental movement escalated the decline in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it remained a cornerstone of our economy and a major reason for living in Humboldt County.

Enrollment in Eureka City Schools is dependent upon the population living within the boundaries of our school district. With the decline of the primary industry also came a decline in enrollment, from a peak of more than 8,000 students to the current enrollment of just under 4,000 students. This sharp decline in students necessitates facility adjustments, including the closure of many schools, one of which will be the focus of this writing, Jacobs Junior High School.

Jacobs was built in 1956 around the peak of the timber industry, and it served as a junior high school up until 1982. After its closure as a junior high, the facility continued to be used for various functions such as adult education and our continuation high school until the facility was closed following the 2008-09 school year.

In anticipation of its closure, Eureka City Schools went through the legal steps of declaring the Jacobs property as surplus in 2008. Other than storage and the soccer fields, the property has been largely unused and the buildings unmaintained since that time.

Since the closing of the school ten years ago, the District has had three Superintendents and numerous changes in Trustees. However, the challenge of what to do with the site has remained constant. The site contains hazardous materials including lead in the paint and asbestos in the ceilings, roofing, and other various insulation products. All of the buildings are at a point where demolition is the only real option moving forward. Informal estimates for the demolition have ranged from $1 to $2 million or potentially higher.

Given these figures, the School Board, up until recently, has prioritized the facility dollars to be spent on buildings occupied by students rather than spending on a school where no children are present or planned to be present in the near future. As the District has started to catch up on the deferred maintenance of our other school sites, this summer Eureka City Schools allocated $200,000 to start the demolition process at Jacobs. This money was spent on the abatement of hazardous materials in a classroom wing, the covers over walkways, and the portable building that was located on the site. The abatement is complete and the covers over the walkways and the portable building have been torn down and removed. Now Eureka City Schools is focusing on our next steps.

In an effort to involve the neighborhood and community in the next steps, the District has had various site meetings, neighborhood meetings and Board meetings. The Board has considered several ideas generated out of these meetings, one of which is how to monitor the site and keep the transient population in our community from setting up camp on the premises.

Through a series of meetings, the idea of using a group called New Directions, under the leadership of John Shelter, emerged. Eureka City Schools is finalizing the details of the agreement now, but in essence, will be using the employees of New Directions to help monitor the site. There will be 4-6 of Mr. Shelter’s employees inhabiting the site, providing monitoring and general clean-up activities.

This is a short term solution while the District finalizes the long term solution. The decision the School Board will need to make is whether or not to keep the property. The Board has determined the soccer fields will remain attached to the Alice Birney Campus and will not be sold with the Jacobs property no matter what is decided as the final outcome for the campus.
The reason the future of the property has been such a difficult decision is that the Jacobs property is the only vacant property of its size (nearly 10 acres not including the soccer fields) located within the city limits of Eureka and not in a tsunami zone. While this land is not needed by the school district in the foreseeable future, it is anyone’s guess what the economy and population of Eureka will look like in 20, 30, or 40 years. There may be no need for using Jacobs as a school site if our local economy does not improve, but if it does, there may be no land/location options for enrollment growth if the property were sold.

On the other hand, today, Eureka City Schools has no need for the property and the buildings have become a liability. With this in mind, the Board has kept an open mind to proposals from public agencies and the community.

If the Board were to choose to sell the property, there is a legal process a school district must follow when selling property (note this is a brief outline and not a thorough overview of the legal requirements). This includes specific notifications to agencies and an offering of the property to other public agencies. If the Jacobs property were to be sold to another public agency, the terms of the sale would have to be mutually agreeable to both agencies. Eureka City Schools has had conversations with four public agencies in the past seven years. One of these agencies, the California Highway Patrol (CHP), is an agency still interested in the property. However, there are many steps CHP must complete in their due diligence to determine if the site is feasible for their new North Coast Headquarters. If they determine it is feasible, then Eureka City Schools would negotiate with CHP to determine if mutually acceptable terms can be reached.

If the Board decides to sell the property and no agreement is reached with the CHP, the next step would be to determine the fair market value of the property through appraisal and offer it for sale. First the District must offer it to agencies including: (i) the Director of General Services, (ii) the Regents of the University of California, (iii) the Trustees of the California State University, (iv) the county, (v) the city, (vi) charter schools within our the District and (vii) any public housing authority in the county.

If the District has offered the property to public entities as set forth above, and the property remains unsold after expiration of the applicable timeframes, the District may proceed to sell the property to the public through a competitive and open bidding process. There are specific requirements that must be followed before ordering the sale of any property through competitive bidding.

Once the property is offered for sale, the District loses much of the control over who buys the property and the future use of the property becomes dependent on the new owners and the zoning, currently zoned-public.

While the Board has been considering the option of sale, Eureka City Schools has also been working on a plan if the District chooses to keep the property. The key to the District’s plan is the abatement and demolition of the buildings. As mentioned earlier, this process has started, but there will be much work to do. Given the high cost of taking on this task, it is likely the project will be spread out over years to make it more affordable for the District and less likely to impact the learning in the classrooms at other sites. If Eureka City Schools were to follow this path, in the end, it would have a vacant piece of land where the Jacobs campus once was.

As the District moves forward, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Eureka City Schools will always be in the neighborhoods of Eureka. The District is not a property developer or seller of property who may promptly move out of the area after the buildings are demolished or the property is sold. Eureka City Schools will continue to have one of our schools, Alice Birney, right next door to the property. The District has a vested interest in our community, and a component of that is making sure the neighborhood around Alice Birney is a good one.

Fred Van Vleck, Ed.D., Superintendent