Wasco was full of ups and downs in 2020
January 7, 2021 | View PDF
2020 will always be referred to as the Year of the Virus, but the city managed to thrive during the pandemic.
Here is a brief look at the year.
In January, at a City Council meeting, three people said they were concerned on the increase of crime. They cited instances of drug-related crimes, as well as instances of shots being fired. They questioned the council on how often deputies patrol the streets and how many deputies are on shift at one time.
Deputy Public Works Director Chuck Soblewski presented two options to the council to get rid of graffiti. Option 1 included hiring two new personnel, purchasing a new vehicle and graffiti abatement equipment with Measure X funds, which would cost the city $651,000 over five years or $130,000 per year. Option 2 called for adding overtime for two personnel when needed and new equipment, which would be a total cost of $171,000 over five years, or $37,000 per year.
The council chose the cheaper option, which included the purchase of a Dustless Blasting DB500 Mobile S, which directs a blast of sand and water over the graffiti and erases it from a surface without damaging the paint previously used to cover up older graffiti.
Also in January, the Bengals Cheer squad took the national title in a competition held in Las Vegas, performing a routine that earned them zero deductions in the process. This title brought national recognition for a program that has been improving every year.
At the end of January, the City Council approved a plan to put new water wells in Wasco. The city plans to drill new wells and treat water at each site rather than centralize water treatment for nitrates and 1-2-3-TCP contaminates, Mayor Tilo Cortez said. The city's water system relies on groundwater provided by six existing wells.
After years of city campaigning, Panda Express announced that they would be coming to Wasco in mid-April 2020. Director of Real Estate Susan Wong said Wasco is located in the center of Central California, on Highway 46 between I-5 and Highway 99, with easy access to major highways and the interstate - the right place for the new Panda Express.
The first Panda Express opened in 1973. The restaurants create authentic Szechwan and Mandarin dishes, while most other fast food franchises prepare hamburgers or chicken, so there's little competition in this part of the fast food industry. Panda Express is a privately-owned company headquartered in Rosemead. The chain has grown from 50 restaurants in 1992 to over 1,700 restaurants today.
The restaurant held a hiring blitz in early February with hopes of hiring an assistant manager, general manager and possibly 10 kitchen support staff and 10 service members.
Also in February, the High Speed Rail Authority released its Business Plan for the section of rail that would involve Fresno to Bakersfield. An open house was held to get the public informed on the plan.
Toni Tinoco, information officer for High Speed Rail, said the 2020 Business Plan was released in mid–February and is available for public review on the HSR website, hsr.ca.gov. It is anticipated that electric-powered trains will be running between Bakersfield and Merced by 2030. As of the most recent forecast, the cost is estimated to be $20.6 billion to $23.4 billion and that funding is available through the state bond, a federal grant and the Cap and Trade Program. By 2022, construction of right of way along the 119- mile section between Madera and Wasco should be completed, Tonico said, and the entire right of way from San Francisco to Los Angeles should have environmental clearance. She said there are currently about 700 onsite construction workers on the project. Extension of HSR to Los Angeles and to the Bay Area will be built as funding becomes available.
In March, a local bond issue that would have meant $40 million in bonds for improvements to the Wasco Union Elementary School District was defeated. This was the second time the bond measure has failed.
Both local education bond issues lost in last week's primary election. Measure A called for almost $40 million in bonds to build a new gymnasium and renovate the existing gym. This was the second time the same project was quashed by the voters. The difference between 2020's Measure A and 2018's Measure E, also rejected, was that Measure A did not include a swimming pool. Under Measure A, taxpayers would pay $30 in additional tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value. The measure, which required a 55% approval, failed with 50.57% voting yes and 49.57 voting no.
In another school bond issue, Measure C would have authorized the Wasco Union Elementary School District to issues $16 million in bonds in three phases. This, too, needed a 55% yes vote to pass. All precincts have reported in and the measure lost with 51.03% yes votes and 48.93% no votes.
Also in March, the coronavirus pandemic began and made it necessary for the local schools to close their doors. Instruction was continued later in the spring by distance learning, which continued through the rest of the school year.
It was also the first time that confirmation was received of the virus affecting residents in Wasco as two couples were confirmed positive. Both couples asked not to be identified. The first couple booked a trip to Northern Italy, after friends and relatives asked them not to go. When they arrived at their destination, the trip was canceled, and they were forced to find their own way home, a friend told the Tribune. Both needed hospitalization, and one of the two had pneumonia and was placed on a ventilator.
March was also the first time that the City of Wasco's city building was closed to the public because of the pandemic. Water, sewer and refuse services still operated as usual, but the public was encouraged to call City Hall for service instead of in-person contact.
In April, Kelly Richer, superintendent of the Wasco Union Elementary School District, said that the future of the district does not look bright for the next couple of years. Richers is looking at the consequences of the pandemic and the empty classrooms its created – and what he sees is not good.
"It's doom and gloom for the next couple of years," he said.
Since schools are paid for each student's daily attendance, and schools are now closed for at least two months, a lot of income has been lost.
"We are sure funding will be cut significantly, but the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) will probably stay similar to what we have for next year," Richers said in an email. "The following year (2021- 2022) will almost assuredly see deep cuts; however, it is too late to give notices of certificated layoffs for the coming year, so we will not be cutting significantly - just moving money around where allowed."
Later in April, the offices of the Wasco Tribune and Shafter Press were spared when a blaze was started in the building in the Brookside Deli portion of the property.
The building that houses The Shafter Press, Wasco Tribune and the former location of Brookside Deli suffered extensive smoke damage and a small fire. Due to the response of the Shafter Police Department and the Kern County Fire Department, the damage did not go any further than a portion of the former deli. Shafter police were dispatched to Central Avenue and Central Valley Highway a little after 8 a.m., when smoke was reported coming from the building. Upon arrival, officers found smoke billowing from the former deli's side of the building. Sergeant Randy Mulligan stated that a glass door in the patio area between the deli and The Shafter Press office had been busted and the door jamb appeared to be pried.
After investigating, it was determined to have started in the bathroom of the closed deli. The location has been victim to several instances of people entering the patio area between the two buildings and staying overnight. The upstairs attic space that houses and displays different decorations during the holiday seasons and The Press offices suffered no damage in the incident.
In May, City Manager Daniel Ortiz-Hernandez presented a letter to the council that was sent to the California High Speed Rail Authority from the City of Wasco. It addresses the city's concerns and impacts the HSR has had on the city.
Ortiz-Hernandez said that the city has incurred security and maintenance costs and the cost of purchasing the building at the corner of Poso/J and Wasco streets because of the HSR.
In earlier correspondence, the HSR said that it would work with the city to discuss any negative impact the HSR has.
Graduations in one form or another took place in June with Wasco Independence High leading off the schools with their graduation.
There are three types of students who attend Wasco Independence High School, Principal Martin Lonza said as the school prepared its commencement ceremony for 105 graduates: students who have fared poorly at larger schools, adults who are seeking their high school diploma, and students studying from home. Each graduate could only bring two guests and families had to maintain the required social distancing.
In July, speculation abounded about whether the city would hold its annual fireworks show. The Orange Heart Foundation led a Fourth of July car parade downtown and, thanks to Wasco High School, the annual fireworks show would happen.
Approximately 25 cars paraded down 7th Street and up and down several nearby streets to Highway 46 with horns honking and windows rolled down so drivers could shout out to passers-by on the streets. The Orange Heart Foundation members were up late into evening of Thursday strategically placing American flags throughout town.
"We wanted to bring positivity back to Wasco," Orange Heart member Orquidea Ocampo said. "There have been some negative things happening, and we wanted to lift everyone's spirits."
Before the fireworks show, the high school and the city set up some strict guidelines that needed to be adhered to, such as no restroom facilities would be available, and people would have to stay inside their vehicles during the fireworks. The show was an extravaganza of color with red, green, blue, yellow and white fireworks lighting up the sky.
July also saw Primex in the news again, this time regarding an employee who died after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Located in Lost Hills, Primex has been at the forefront of the news regarding the covid-19 pandemic. A July 17 story in Kern Sol News stated that one employee had died and another was taken off life support. Jesse Rojas of the Redd Group, a Bakersfield business consulting firm hired by Primex, confirmed there has been one death at Primex. However, he said that until the autopsy is concluded, the direct correlation to the virus is unknown.
The July 17 story stated that according to the United Farm Workers, 40 employee family members had tested positive and that 23 of those were children.
In August, the Wonderful Company established a new $1 million relief fund to support nonprofit organizations and schools in California's Central Valley, including Wasco, Shafter, Delano, Firebaugh, Avenal, Sanger, Mendota and Del Rey.
The company said funding will go to organizations and schools in these communities that have been impacted either by state or federal budget cuts or have new, critical needs due to the pandemic.
Schools in the Wasco Union School District announced in August that schools would begin the year distance learning only.
Robert Cobb, assistant superintendent of the Wasco Union High School District, announced that the beginning of school was not what the district envisioned when it had almost completed preparations for the new school year; however, plans had to change with the increase in covid-19 cases in Kern County.
The district realized that their original goal of allowing students a couple of days of in-person class will not be possible for the fall quarter.
Cobb said the distance learning will be improved from the experience of last spring. Regular attendance will be taken, students will need to engage daily during the classroom session, protocols will be placed for students who don't log on, students are guaranteed internet access, and they will need to pursue a letter grade as opposed to credit/ no credit.
Cobb also said distance learning creates a unique challenge for Career Technical Education and hands-on learning. He said that the district is aware that while some classes are compatible with distance learning, others are not, and that "the district will do its best to keep students engaged and provide alternative activities to the hands-on experiences students would have in many courses. Some of those alternative activities may include online simulations and video-based lessons until in-person instruction can be provided."
Hoyett's shut its doors in August.
Hoyett's opened in 1948, and Hoyett Smothers started working there that year. A friend of Easter's suggested that she head over to the burger place in town and see the new employee, who was Hoyett. Hoyett and Easter married in 1951. Eventually they sold the restaurant to employee Terri Anderson, who owned Hoyett's from 1996 to 2010.
Anderson sold the restaurant to Kevin Newcomb. Newcomb previously worked at SavMart for 25 years, but once Walmart was approved by the city, he knew SavMart wouldn't last long. After Newcomb bought Hoyett's, his parents, Max and Linda Newcomb, would often stop by to help out.
Hoyett's was known for its chili and charburgers.
September saw a very different Wasco Rose Queen Pageant.
Isabella Garcia was crowned the 2020 Rose Queen/Miss Wasco. Tailored to meet the covid-19 restrictions placed on indoor gatherings, the pageant still had its air of splendor. While the location was kept a secret, once the program began, it didn't matter where it took place. 2019 Rose Queen Elisa Flores opened the program. Each girl introduced herself and shared her mermaid name with the attendees to go along with the Under the Sea theme.
Garcia performed a toe-shoe ballet dance as the Sugar Plum Fairy from the Nutcracker Suite. Garcia took home the title of 2020 Rose Queen/Miss Wasco and Talitha Arellano was 1st Runner Up, Christianne Ray Hernandez was 2nd Runner-Up and Idaly Flores was 3rd Runner-Up.
Also in September, long-time educator Lori Albrecht announced her plans to retire.
Albrecht made the announcement at the September district board meeting. Albrecht lists several significant accomplishments during her time at the district beginning with a continuous school improvement journey with a focus on system alignment, which began about 12 years ago. She also cited the district's ability to shift to one of the state's new indicators of success for high schools, which is college and career readiness.
October saw some things in Wasco staying the same amid the changing times with the pandemic still going full force.
Nonprofits and businesses have become more creative when it comes to raising money as well as giving back to the community, such as last spring's "Sponsor a Senior," which might make a comeback next spring depending on where the county stands with respect to Gov. Gavin Newsom's four-tier platform.
The Toys for Tigers nonprofit has had to cancel its holiday plans, which usually meant the committee would receive donations from FFA's Dodgeball tournament, the annual toy drive and the annual Christmas Tree decorating event.
This year, Toys for Tigers will be celebrating birthdays by providing pink flamingos with birthday greetings to anyone who wishes to order them. Contact Candy Wilson, 661-330-3134, to order your flamingos for someone special's birthday. A special birthday message will be delivered, including two additional smaller birthday messages and lots of flamingos, ending up with a colorfully decorated front yard.
Also in October, businesses were elated when Kern County went to Red Tier from the stricter Purple Tier, allowing businesses to reopen, such as restaurants, salons, and gyms.
Restaurants were eager to open their doors to begin serving dining-in customers. Hair salons breathed a sigh of relief that customers were able to relax and enjoy their haircuts or manicures.
Wherever people are, and wherever they decide to shop, masks are required to enter business premises, hair and nail salons and all restaurants. Walmart is tough on wearing masks. The store has a sign on the front door that requires masks to enter the store. They have taken the directional arrows out, so people are back to milling every which way on up and down each aisle.
In November, the general election took place, with a couple of local races not declaring a winner until weeks after.
In the elections in Wasco, the City Council elections are by district, instead of using an at-large system. In the most hotly contested district, Vincent Martinez outpointed William David Ward in District 2. In District 4, Tilo Cortez Jr. had a 52 to 48% lead for the council seat over Eddie Saldana. Incumbent Alex Garcia ran unopposed for District 5.
Under school districts, Randy Bloemhof won the Maple School Board with almost 78% of the vote to Ty Roger's 22%. For the Wasco Union High School District board, John Steward and Sharon Nichol won with 43% and almost 35%, respectively. The Measure H vote was shot down by voters, 51% to 47%. The measure would have authorized the Wasco Union School District to issue up to $16 million in bonds with bond revenue going to fund improvements in schools, health, safety and security, restrooms and facilities, as well as a master kitchen.
The Recreation and Parks Department of Wasco put on its second movie night at Barker Square. The movie "Angry Birds" was enjoyed by many residents who knew this was probably going to be the last of public events until the covid-19 numbers go down again.
Even in the face of the pandemic, Thanksgiving was still celebrated in Wasco.
In December, Wasco High welcomed a new principal, Sunni Dobbs. Both Dobbs and her husband and their two daughters are graduates of Wasco High School. Dobbs worked at the Maple Elementary School District as a 6th and 2nd grade teacher, athletic coach, student council advisor, oral language festival coordinator and eventually academic coach for a total of 12 years. In 2016 she was hired at Wasco High and is currently in her third year as the assistant principal of curriculum and instruction. She taught U.S. History her first two years at the high school and was a support teacher for the Wonderful Ag Prep Academy while coaching the freshman volleyball team as well as assisted with the varsity softball program.
December also saw the holidays being observed just a little different this year. Families had their homes lit up bright as they entered the Recreation and Parks District competition. Most of the houses had blow-up decorations such as snowmen, candles, the nativity scene and reindeer with Santa on rooftops along with strings and strings of lights.
At the end of the year, community members gathered virtually for a Zoom meeting that concerned the growing violence percolating in the city. There were two deadly shootings in one week. A round table including council members and concerned community members was held and one issue discussed was the need for a stronger police presence in town. This brought up the idea that has been batted around town for over a decade of the possibility of Wasco having their own police force again. Some community members thought that it was worth looking into the possibility and feasibility of the venture.