The Mountain View Whisman school board decided Wednesday night to move forward with a $42 million transformation of the Castro Elementary School campus, but only after three hours of deadlocked votes and lengthy discussion.
The decision involved some significant cuts to the construction plans to build a new school for Castro Elementary and modernize the existing buildings for the district's Dual Immersion program. But the cuts were not intended to bring the cost below the $43 million estimated price tag -- it was to bring down the new, $51 million-plus construction estimate.
Castro Elementary is an expensive campus to work on, according to district staff, and demolition, utilities, concrete, landscaping, playgrounds and other site work is going to end up costing $9 million, twice the amount was originally budgeted. There's not much that can be done to bring that number down, said Todd Lee, construction project manager for the district.
"Unlike buildings, we can't have a district standard for site work," Lee said. "All of your sites are unique in their acreage and composition."
The board voted 3-1, with board member Greg Coladonato opposed, for cheaper roofing, and eliminating classroom skylights and exterior sliding glass walls, among other cuts, bringing the total estimated cost down to $41.8 million.
But it wasn't an easy vote to come to, with board members deadlocked 2-2 for hours. With board president Chris Chiang's resignation, an impasse seemed certain as trustees Steve Nelson and Coladonato expressed unhappiness with the designs.
Coladonato said he was unsettled by the idea that the project somehow ended up $10 million over budget on top of its $43 million budget, which he said was far above the amount of money given to all the other elementary schools.
"To find out that we're actually at $51 (million) and required cutting off certain needs to get to $43 is troublesome to me," Coladonato said.
Rather than approve the recommendations, Coladonato made a motion for a revised $33 million budget which would have the district consider cheaper ways to reconfigure the site. The suggestion, which was met with gasps and audible exasperation from the Castro staff attending the meeting, failed to get a second.
Nelson was not sold on the idea that Castro Elementary needs six additional classrooms, costing $3.4 million, and said he did not agree that the school needs to have three classrooms per grade level for differentiated instruction. He insisted that future phases of the Castro construction include the option to leave out the six classrooms, and said there's no truth to the idea that a "three-strand" school makes a significant difference to academic programs.
"This is an urban myth, and I don't like allocating tens of millions of dollars on urban myths," Nelson said.
After a nuanced adjustment to the recommendations that would keep many of the cuts from coming back to the board as additional options for future phases of construction, Nelson broke the stand-off and voted with board members Bill Lambert and Ellen Wheeler in favor of the plans.
Wheeler said she did not agree with the changes suggested by Nelson, but said that by moving forward, the district would save from $3.5 to $4 million in opportunity costs that would've been lost had the board stalled on the decision.
Castro principal Theresa Lambert said despite the high number of cuts proposed to the schematic design, she was content with the board's decision.
"I am okay with the results," Lambert said. "There are some board members who want the budget (even) lower, which is just not possible programmatically."
While many of the cuts to the project approved at the June 24 meeting were for things that go above and beyond the district standard, Castro teachers and administrators insisted that things like exterior glass doors and sky-lighting are among the many things they need to teach in a 21st century environment.
Marcela Simoes de Carvalho, the incoming principal of the newly named Gabriela Mistral Dual Immersion school, said all of the academic improvements planned for both Castro campus schools are dependent on a modern, new learning environment.
"It was very clear that the elements in our design are not 'wants,' they're needs," Carvahlo said. "They need to be present in order to teach differently, to teach in the future (and) to prepare kids for the great jobs that we have here in Silicon Valley."
Castro parent Sarah Livnat said improving the academic achievement at Castro Elementary, which was some of the highest rates of socio-economically disadvantaged students and English-language learners, is one of the "single greatest needs" in the district, and that there's a great opportunity to use Measure G money to do it. She said she knows it costs a lot of money to make the upgrades in the schematic, but that academic performance is more important than balancing funds between schools.
"We are not trying to create equality of facilities, we are trying to create equalities in academic performance," Livnat said.
Jill Rakestraw, an incoming Dual Immersion parent, voiced concerns that the school's design doesn't look like it has enough flexibility to allow students and classes to cross an invisible line between the two schools.
"I see this school and this school and a wall in between, and I think that we're going to lose the integration that was always so wonderful about having two schools on the same site," Rakestraw said.
Bill Lambert, frustrated with the split vote and inability to get Nelson or Coladonato to budge, explained that the board committed to building new facilities at Castro months ago, and it would be a "tremendous disservice" to the district and to the community if trustees were to go back on it. He said the hesitance appears to be over fears that the district will run out of money.
"We can't keep delaying our projects," Lambert said. "I feel that we're acting because of fear, because we're afraid of making a decision, because we're operating under a regime or paradigm of scarcity."
Instead, Lambert advocated that the board members make big decisions and do their best to advocate for the money they need, whether it be in a bond or a parcel tax, to reach those goals.
"Let's be bold and brave about it and say, 'this is what we want,' and then make sure that we're going out as a board and as a district in getting the money we need to finance our schools the way we want to," Lambert said.