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Senate School Facilities Panel Sizes Up Need for Better Schools, and Smoother Review Process

By Jeff Hudson - July 17, 2009

The Senate Select Committee on State School Facilities held a broad discussion of issues relating to school design, new construction and modernization on Tuesday at the State Capitol.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach, and the committee chairman) opened the session by reminding everyone that the committee was holding its first meeting.  Lowenthal sketched the size of the task before the committee by noting that California voters have, since 1998, approved over $35 billion in bond funding for school construction in the form of state ballot propositions, and voters in local school districts have approved about $45 billion more in local facilities bonds.

Given the vast size of that financial commitment, Lowenthal expressed concern over “the lack of overall vision of where we’re going” and spoke of his concern that state and local authorities are not working together as well as they could.   “What was once intended as an equal partnership between local districts in the state is now a labyrinth of state regulations that stifles creativity and innovation,” Lowenthal said.

Guy Mehula, chief facilities executive with the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District, gave a lengthy presentation on “the elaborate school building process” that touched on several aspects of the complex relationship between state government and school districts.  Mehula talked about how school construction plans must be reviewed by the state’s Office of Public School Construction (OPSC), Division of State Architect (DSA) and Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).  “We are trying to work within the system,” Mehula said, while acknowledging that the process can be time consuming.

Mehula said that in addition to these multiple layers of review -- with each step taking multiple months -- the process has been slowed by the state budget crisis.  Mehula said the Friday furlough days are affecting the DSA, which is “slowing the review process” for LAUSD and many other school districts.

Mehula added that his district’s construction and modernization plans will be taking a hit because of the decline in the assessed value of real estate in the Los Angeles area.  After selling bonds in September and again in early 2010, “we can’t sell more bonds until 2015-16,” Mehula said.  “We will finish up the current program, and basically downsize our facilities program to maintenance and operations” for about five years, “and then build it up again.”

Mehula noted that LAUSD had laid off 800 custodians and other maintenance workers, largely as a result of the state budget crisis, which will make it even harder for the district to maintain the buildings that it has.

Jeffrey Vincent, of the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley, emphasized that “facilities are gravely overlooked as an important element in student success and closing the achievement gap.”  He said that research shows “a consistent relationship between poor facilities and poor student performance.”  Vincent said that “the lowest income school districts spend the least on facilities… and lower income districts are much more likely to be funding basic repairs . . . just to keep their students dry.”

“Facility quality impacts students’ experiences in schools,” Vincent said. “ ‘Green’ buildings promote efficient use of public resources.  Quality school buildings support community vitality. Poor building conditions lead to student absenteeism, and the likelihood that teachers will leave” for other districts or other careers.

Vincent said that there are about 100 new schools built annually in California, and acknowledged that the design and construction of these schools is important.  “But improving the roughly 10,000 existing schools will likely have much more impact on California students,” Vincent advised.

Vincent called for “a statewide database on facilities,” including building conditions and past and present spending.  While existing state agencies maintain extensive records, “My understanding is that we have no way currently to identify the 100 California schools with the greatest needs,” Vincent said.

Thomas Blurock of IBI Group Architects noted that while state funds are scarce, many school districts have received voter approval for school construction bonds, and since the threshold for approval was lowered from a two-thirds majority to 55 percent “the passage rate has been really high,” Blurock said.

Blurock suggested that it’s time for California to reconsider the extensive use of portable classrooms.  “They became an easy fix for districts that didn’t do planning. You could get them fast,” Blurock said.  “But they just got out of hand.”

Lettie Boggs, chair and CFO of Colbi Technologies, likewise took a generally dim view of portable classrooms.  “They can be the right answer when a district needs a classroom quickly,” Boggs said, “but now, the relocatable buildings of the 1980s are over 20 years old, and in need of major renovation or replacement.”

“The life expectancy for permanent buildings is 80 years or more,” Boggs said. “For a portable, it’s 25 or 30 years. . . You spend 50 years of building money on 25 years of building.”

“It costs the state less to build better buildings” over the long haul, Boggs said. “And they provide better educational environments.”

Bill Savidge, engineering officer at the West Contra Costa Unified School District, spoke of the benefits of “green building standards and renewable energy systems, which are a natural fit with school districts.  High performing schools mean high performing kids,” he said, while buildings that lack natural ventilation and natural daylight do little to improve student performance.

George Copa, director of Oregon-based New Designs for Learning, offered a presentation with pictures of many innovative new school designs.

Kathleen Moore, director of the School Facilities Planning Division at the California Department of Education (CDE), wrapped up the session with a presentation covering the CDE’s efforts.  She recommended that guiding principals and a statewide vision be established as California gears up for what are expected to be several years or rising enrollment -- particularly at the elementary school level -- during the coming decade.

Senators on the committee asked several questions during Tuesday’s session, but did not offer extensive responses.  In addition to Lowenthal, the senators on the committee include Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego), Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), Robert Huff (R-Glendora), Glora Negrete McCleod (D-Chino), Alex Padilla (D-Los Angeles) and Lois Wolk (D-Davis).

Editor's Note: Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.