News

Board OKs $42 M Castro school project

Costs ballooned to $51M; $10M in cuts needed to stay within budget

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.

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Comments

38 people like this
Posted by Sloane
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Jun 26, 2015 at 1:58 pm

It's nice to hear from Bill Lambert. He often stays silent but in a Board as godawfully dysfuctional as this one, we need every sane person to stand up.

Coladonato, your single minded dedication to your own interests is staggeringly evident in these discussions. You're making Nelson look like the reasonable one and that's quite an accomplishment.


24 people like this
Posted by More Than Enough
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jun 26, 2015 at 3:01 pm

I wish Trustees Nelson and Coladonato "buen vijage" (or bon voyage) on their Quixotic Journey to reform how an entire segment of the construction industry operates. That takes bold courage. I just wish they could find a way, without wasting the time or money of the rest of us. If they are unhappy with the design presented, that means you hired the wrong architect. Architect's job is to articulate owner's vision. Program Manager's job is to attempt to assign costs to the design. As far as I can tell, the Professionals did their jobs. I guess as taxpayers we have to force and insist that Nelson and Coladonato do theirs!


12 people like this
Posted by Fiscal Control
a resident of another community
on Jun 26, 2015 at 3:38 pm

I applaud the concern with fiscal restraint. The suggestion to just let costs rise as much as they want and then ask for more tax money is ill advised.

I wonder if this construction project is being put out to bid. It certainly should be. These sweet heart deals where the decision is made in advance as to who will do the work and how much the cost will be are a recipe for a waste of funds.

I don't agree with the treatment of the Castro site as just 1 school under the district's plans. It's clearly 2 schools. However, it seems to me that the other schools should be held to about a $20 Million budget each, or less. You can bet their cost estimates will come in greater than originally anticipated as well.

When the one board member Lambert talks about another bond measure to cover rising costs, does he realize that means leave 1 or 2 schools out of any improvement by using all the funds on the sites done first? The smart way to do this is to leave features out of every site to keep the cost under what can be done with the existing bond. The district blew a whale of a lot on the middle schools. Questionable. Better get things under control and hold an even keel to at least address all the sites before asking for more bond money. No excuse not to do that.


15 people like this
Posted by Seriously?
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jun 26, 2015 at 3:58 pm

"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" & "It was very clear that the elements in our design are not 'wants,' they're needs,".

I seriously doubt we needed all of those fancy designs for kids to learn their ABCs and 123s to close the achievement gap. Glad they were taken out.


17 people like this
Posted by VC
a resident of North Whisman
on Jun 26, 2015 at 4:55 pm

I completely agree with commenter Fiscal Control. The Board should absolutely be looking out for taxpayer money, and questioning things where they see fit. Especially when it comes to spending millions of dollars. Checks and Balances.

Also, especially when the architect is providing the following as options:
Solatube Skylights
Rooftop Terraces
Glass Walls

I'm also curious as to whether or not these projects go out to bid. And if so how many bids were placed during the process, and what were the results? Where can I find this info?

The current spending process seems to be:
a) District Staff (?) provides a wish list
b) Architect analyzes this wish list and provides an expected dollar value (i.e. $43M)
c) District Staff (?) tells committees that $43M is spoken for, and tells the architect to proceed with plans
d) Only after plans are drawn, is the Board asked for approval of the $43M, and the Board is not allowed to ask questions without being criticized.

Shouldn't the the Board be providing a dollar amount as a target, in the beginning stages instead? And then working closely with the architect to determine what they can and cannot get for that dollar amount?

I would like to think that when the district receives an influx of bond money, they would create a holistic budget tied to a long term plan/vision before spending large chunks of the money. But this doesn't seem to be the case in recent history.






3 people like this
Posted by PACT parent
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jun 27, 2015 at 1:03 am

@Fiscal Control of another community

Last thing first in this case...
"However, it seems to me that the other schools should be held to about a $20 Million budget each, or less."

The fundamental problem that far too many people overlook is that each of our elementary schools are at very different levels compared to each other. Landles, Bubb & Huff are the closest to the same, but even they differ significantly from one another in their facilities. There are a whole host of historical reasons for the current differences, but the point is that you have to evaluate each school as it's own complex mix of good and bad things, more costly and less costly changes needed in order to make these schools come out roughly the same educationally. Which is the whole point.

It's just irrational to say "just go spend $20million on each site" and that will be "equal". It wont be, it wont be close.

To make matters more complicated, even if you ignore the buildings themselves, every school site has vastly different land site conditions which demand vastly different costs of working on those sites and dealing with things like street access or fire lane access, or flood risk abatement, or...
Each site has vastly different challenges and thus costs.

Next...
While I am quite happy with the concept of "fiscal responsibility", it's always critical to be able to tell the difference between spending a dollar to save a nickle versus spending a nickle to save a dollar. The political process (even in a rational political body) often utterly obscures the difference to the point where NOBODY can actually tell which one is going on. Like with our Board.

"I don't agree with the treatment of the Castro site as just 1 school under the district's plans. It's clearly 2 schools."

Well, no, that would be nice, but no. Each of these "two" schools are required to share almost everything but the classrooms and admin offices. So, one should call them each "3/4" schools to get the point across that they must carefully coordinate and interleave their use of the majority of their campus. Something that most schools would NOT be happy to do for obvious reasons. In the case of the Castro site, there is just not enough total land space available to do anything else.


3 people like this
Posted by PACT parent
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jun 27, 2015 at 3:24 am

@VC of North Whisman
You mentioned:
"Glass Walls"
As one example I assume you feel are luxury items?

See the video, Trustee Nelson wants moveable glass walls.

It is very difficult to understand the plot of the movie, or figure out the players or their motives when you come in 2/3rds of the way through the showing.

In recent Board meetings, some people are pretending they "just walked in" when they already saw the "rushes".

My first 2015 meeting the estimated budget for the Castro/DI project being discussed was $50million. I found others aware of that number. $43million was no "big sudden shocking surprise" to the Board. It was NOT sprung on them in the past couple weeks. Nor was the $5million overage any shock as the potential for overages was discussed.

"The Board should absolutely be looking out for taxpayer money, and questioning things where they see fit."

IF that was the actual agenda, great, but those points are not being made about principal. They are about a specific agenda, which happens to be SERVED by such "fiscal responsibility" remarks at carefully selected moments/items.

"Checks and Balances."

There are no "Checks and Balances", whatever the Board says goes. If the Superintendent tries to defy the Board, they can just fire another one.

In 2005 the Board totally ignored the public pleas to save the Slater school and they are showing no signs paying any attention to the public today.

"...approval of the $43M, and the Board is not allowed to ask questions without being criticized."

That's NOT why the Board is being criticized.

"Shouldn't the the Board be providing a dollar amount as a target, in the beginning stages instead?"

They did. $198million. They also had estimated numbers by school for months. Read the web-site documents or listen to the videos. We heard these per-school numbers months ago.

"And then working closely with the architect to determine what they can and cannot get for that dollar amount?"

Setting a budget for a project is fine, micro-managing the details lacking the expert background to understand the implications of your arbitrary knee-jerk 3-min-discussion reactions, is a disaster.

I've spent 4 decades in high-tech. The biggest disasters and money wasters happen when managers PLAY at being engineers.

When managers go second-guessing the carefully considered professional choices made by experts who have the required background and have spent the time deeply immersed in every choice they made BEFORE they had something they could present as a recommendation...
That's when things go VERY BAD, VERY QUICKLY and VERY expensively.

Todd Lee nearly walked.
I have walked away from projects when the manager was more concerned with his own ego or some company political power agenda than he was in the success of the project at hand or the company as a whole.

If you don't trust the professional experts in your employ, then fire them, don't micro-manage them and the project to death.

"create a holistic budget tied to a long term plan/vision before spending large chunks of the money. But this doesn't seem to be the case in recent history."

Nor will it be possible as long as there are other over-riding political agendas at play.


3 people like this
Posted by PACT parent
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jun 29, 2015 at 9:56 pm

The $30million the Board voted to be specifically set aside in a special reserve account for the Slater School at the above Board meeting didn't even get mentioned in this article. (That $30million number is rounding down.)

That seems very odd, since this huge Slater set-aside also takes away from district funds which could be spent on other things.

The Slater School now has a $30million budget (which is 3/4 the budget of the whole Castro 2-school project) and yet still Stevenson is NOT even on the LIST of schools getting construction money.

Well, I guess if that's the price the Board decides we must pay to stay at Stevenson, we'll find a way to make due with what we have. As long as we can stay where we are, we will find a way to survive until the next bond measure, whatever year that may come in.


6 people like this
Posted by Steven Nelson
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 2, 2015 at 10:10 am

@ PACT parent of Rex Manor. You are ill informed. There is not a $30 million Slater school construction budget (rounded down) Please see the recent Voice article on this recent MVWSD vote - and you will become better informed with the nuance of public finance and Reserve Fund operations. All Funds are district funds. And a majority of the Board votes on allocating these funds. As of this moment (unless the GISSV has made deposits for their new lease rate) there are zero dollars in any new Reserve Fund.

SN is a Trustee of the MVWSD, and he does not speak for the Board or the MVWSD


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