Showing posts with label #AltimiraMiddleSchool. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #AltimiraMiddleSchool. Show all posts

Friday, May 12, 2023

Questions from the Press, Friday, May 12, 2023.

Miles Trachtenberg
Heather Kelly Trachtenberg
I received questions today from Dan Johnson of the Sonoma Index-Tribune regarding last night's decision by the trustees of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District to proceed with construction of the Science Building at Sonoma Valley High School. Per my past practice, I post the questions and my answers below. 

I have attached a picture of my nephew, Miles, and my sister, Heather. Miles is graduating in a few weeks from his high school, the Houston Academy for International Studies, and at the same time has earned an associates in arts (AA) degree from Houston Community College, as he completed the work for both at the same time. He was also, incidentally, the prom king. Well done Miles!


1. Did the board approve the original agenda item—to approve the lease-lease back agreement—or did it simply vote to move forward with constructing the new science wing?

My understanding of the item is that it was approved as agendized. A lease-leaseback arrangement covers both the design and construction of a building, which allows collaboration with the builder throughout the process, an innovation that has resulted in lowered construction costs, and closer adherence to the agreed-to designs in school projects across California. The lease-leaseback approach aims to involve both the contractor and architect early in the project to, hopefully, minimize expensive changes after construction starts, ensuring the project stays within the initially established price. The method normally encourages close collaboration between the architect and builder from the beginning and throughout the project. In contrast, the traditional design-bid-build process often lacks this level of coordination, as design documents are completed before the contractor's involvement.
This particular lease-leaseback arrangement was entered into several years ago, but commencing construction under the terms of the lease-leaseback itself requires approval from the board. Again, my understanding of the agenda item was that we were approving construction pursuant to the original lease-leaseback arrangement.

2. So, does this mean that the school district has not arranged yet for a construction company to build the science wing? I thought that a construction company had been determined. If so, what is the name of the construction company and what is the significance of the lease-lease back agreement?

The relationship with the contractor, GCCI, was formed at the time of the inception of the lease-leaseback relationship, which is normal and routine. We are continuing with the agreed-to contractor, which is what I would expect if the District did indeed intend to follow through and make the bond expenditure. However, we are not required to do so -- as a District we have the discretion to decline to proceed. Especially given the greatly modified scope of this particular project, which has been transformed from a mere remodel to a complete demolition and reconstruction, it would not have been unexpected for this project not to have gone forward.

3. I see that the modernization is estimated to cost $15,484,390, quite a bit higher than the original estimate of $8,684,390. Why has the cost increased so much?

We are now demolishing the existing building and commencing construction on an entirely new one, a very different proposition from the original proposal. Further, the costs of remodeling included many accommodations to the existing design, making it essentially no different from, and perhaps even more expensive than, simply knocking down the building and starting over. However, the remodel was initially conceived as a cost-saving measure to avoid having to construct a completely new building. Had the District known that remodeling would essentially involve a decision to demolish, I feel the decision probably would have gone a different way.

4. The new science wing was scheduled to be built by summer 2024. Will this still be the case? When will construction begin?

My belief is that demolition will begin shortly after the conclusion of classes in June. I defer to staff and the contractor regarding the expected completion date. 

5. Will the district be able to pay for the new science wing strictly through Measure E funds?

It is the belief of the District that it will be able to do so. Several of our bond projects have run over cost significantly. We have little room left for error at this point.

6. It seemed that most of the concerns about approving this agenda item centered around costs to improve facilities at Altimira Middle School. What work needs to be done at Altimira?

Seven Altimira buildings were constructed via "tilt-up," and they constitute the bulk of the Altimira campus. Tilt-Up construction features series of concrete panels tilted up into place to form a building's exterior wall. These panels are created at the work site using wood forms, rebar and concrete. The forms are shaped and rebar cut to match the final designs. Next, concrete is poured into the forms and finished. 

While the technique was popular in the middle of the 20th century due to the perceived lower cost associated with the method, in the longer term the price associated with maintaining adherence with seismic safety standards ultimately makes it no less, and perhaps more expensive that competing methods of construction. During the preparation of the facilities master plan by Perkins Eastman, the consultants brought to light the SB 300 status of Altimira’s buildings. These buildings do not meet current seismic safety standards and SVUSD will be required to conduct a retrofit (at best) and perhaps will have to demolish and reconstruct these buildings in the near future, as the structures simply do not meet contemporary seismic safety standards -- a fact only brought to light in January of 2023. 

7. Why wasn’t the work at Altimira included in the list of bond projects?

The process of choosing projects on which to expend bond dollars was supposed to be guided by the principle of "safe, warm and dry." Safety was, at all times, intended to be the guiding principle in project prioritization. I have had disappointment over and over again at how the politicization of construction in the District has led to very different priorities being advanced. Ultimately, the bond expenditure program ended up being a series of compromises between competing groups all with legitimate claims to the expenditure of resources. My belief is that we as a District cannot allow that to occur again, and we must make sure to constrain, in the drafting of the bond measure language, the projects the trustees are allowed to expend funds regarding. 

8. How much do you expect the work at Altimira will cost?

I don't know. I have asked repeatedly for an estimate. Perkins Eastman represented to me they would have an estimate several times, including at our March and April meetings, but no information has been forthcoming. 

My expectation, at this point, is that the buildings will all need to be demolished and reconstructed, and I expect each will cost in the range of $10-$15 million. In aggregate, I would not be surprised if the total figure is between $70-$100 million as a consequence. 
While our business officials have expressed hope that remediation may be an order of magnitude less than this, more in the range of $5-$7 million, their reticence in committing to that figure is the "tell," so to speak, regarding the confidence anyone can have in that back-of-the-envelope calculation. 

9. Do you anticipate that another bond measure will need to be passed to do the work at Altimira, or can it be paid for in another way?

There was a lot of general language shared in the meeting regarding alternative funding mechanisms. Among the suggestions was the sale of District property, a complete nonstarter as far as I am concerned. CDOs, or collateralized debt obligations, are of course available, but because those are backstopped by the District's general fund, they should not be used in my opinion unless the project to which they are dedicated is revenue-generating. While there is some state money, and redevelopment agency funds anticipated to be received in future years that could potentially be securitized, none of these are appropriate for the construction of ordinary school facilities that were and are the top-line priority for past and future bond campaigns. Simply put, if we're not using bond monies for seismic safety, what are we using them for in the first place? Is there any higher priority than student safety in an earthquake, particularly for a school that serves our most disadvantaged student population? 

10. Do you think that it is likely that a bond measure could pass, and would other district needs be included in it?

This is too contingent of a question to answer at this time. SVUSD's record of bond expenditures makes clear that any language in a future bond will have to be carefully scrutinized before it is allowed to go to the voters. Having witnessed the gap between the reality of how bond funds have been spent, and how they were represented to the public in the first place, I would be very uncomfortable ever bringing such general language to the voters again. The legitimacy and accuracy of the bond offering is critical to ensuring that the funds are expended as the voters intended, and that just didn't happen in the past. 

11. You indicated that you felt there were strong arguments both for and against moving ahead with building the science wing. Please summarize your thoughts. 

Only the most trivial of arguments are easily disproved, and as trustees we know we are grappling with our essential duties when strong arguments can be deployed both pro and con. Here, support for science education is amongst the top priorities of our trustees. Remodeling our buildings that serve that important program will help equip our students for success in a future yet to be imagined, let alone fully described. I can understand the inclinations of my fellow trustees to proceed with the project given that important priority. Further, the fact that it has taken this long to reach this important project is again a further testament to how other projects, of less import to our constituents, were nonetheless advanced on the District's construction calendar. 

Change is difficult. It is scary to confront the costs that we may be facing at Altimira. As our business officials noted, the costs at Altimira may be so high that the remaining bond funds would be inadequate to address the issue, and the science building project is ready to commence. However, our voters expect us to prioritize given the facts that this board confronts, not the ones faced by another board in another time. The clear problems at Altimira, and the lack of any guidance given to the trustees on those costs, while the trustees were urged to approve this science building project that is now nearly double its initial estimates, justified caution in proceeding and the trustees should have obtained more information before approving the science building. Thus, the source of disagreement I think did not turn on the merits of the science building itself, but whether the appropriate amount of information had been provided to the trustees to weigh the competing interests. A special meeting could have been scheduled in a week or ten days to review estimates of Altimira and make a fully informed decision; the fact that the trustees did not wait to obtain that before proceeding was thus the ultimate source of disagreement at the meeting last night. 

12. How will building a new science wing enhance education for Sonoma Valley High School students?

New facilities are amongst the clearest ways we, as a District, can show our commitment to a particular program, and science education lies at the core of our current understanding of how to prepare our graduates for college and career. Existing facilities do not meet the needs of our program, as articulated by our educators. I trust their evaluation of this, and the science building is indeed a priority. 
There are alternatives to new construction, including the fact that as our enrollment and attendance decline, we have a surfeit of classrooms and structures available for repurposing. There was not a detailed discussion of those alternatives, and I would have liked to have seen if there were other options before proceeding. There were discussions about whether that information could be provided quickly, and I think it would have been appropriate for the trustees to consider this before proceeding.

13. Would you like to say anything else?

I believe that my fellow trustees are acting to resolve competing claims to resources, which is a classic function of a school board. It is right and proper that they should do this. However, I believe prudence here would have guided us to conserve bond funds, in an effort to demonstrate this board is aware of the issues with prior bond expenditures and knows the public is observing how well our governance team matches professed values with those practiced and applied over time. We as a District should be doing all we can to conserve resources to address those most critical of issues, and it is hard to find any more important in the context of facilities than seismic safety. While I realize those who serve as trustees with me now were not those who made earlier decisions regarding the expenditure of bond funds, we have collective responsibility for the operations of the District and we must recognize that the public will not distinguish us from one another when evaluating whether to support future bond expenditures, which will inevitably be necessary to maintain the quality of instruction our community wants and deserves. I remain committed to working with my fellow trustees to navigate these difficult questions in the future, despite our disagreement at times over priorities, such as we had last night over this construction decision.