A dispute between PG&E and a Mountain View homeowners' association meant Vargas Elementary School opened in August without a permanent power supply. Halfway through the school year and one week before students took off for the holiday break, district officials announced that the school is finally hooked up to the grid.
In an announcement to families earlier this month, Mountain View Whisman School District Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the school district was "cautiously optimistic" that PG&E would finish installing utilities and supply Vargas Elementary with a permanent source of electricity for the first time on Monday, Dec. 16. District officials confirmed on Monday that the school now has power, and no longer needs to rely on a rented gas generator to keep the lights on.
"I am thankful for the MVWSD board of trustees and district staff members for their tireless, behind-the-scenes advocacy and coordination with PG&E," Rudolph said in the announcement. "They have worked daily to ensure the power connection work continues."
Vargas Elementary, a new campus on N. Whisman Road, had a rough start to its inaugural year when construction crews hit a snag trying to hook up the school to a power supply. The original plan was to have PG&E power the school through an existing vault across the street, only to discover that the route was completely full.
The workaround was to approach the power supply from the other side, encroaching on private property owned by the neighboring California Station homeowners association. What came next was a monthslong dispute between the utility company and the HOA over PG&E's right to use the wedge of undeveloped land at the corner of Pacific Drive.
At the time, representatives from the neighborhood association said they were sympathetic to the needs of the school district and were willing to work with PG&E to craft an easement agreement, but that PG&E had been both slow to respond and unwilling to agree to the HOA's terms for use of the property. As of August, HOA representatives said they were still in the dark on precisely what PG&E planned to do with the property.
Shortly after the start of the school year and a Voice story about the dispute, district officials said they were done waiting for a resolution, and instead sought to hook up at an alternate location. Slower and more expensive than the original plan, PG&E had to install a new power vault, run an electrical conduit and test the lines over several months, according to the district. The electricity to the school switched on for the first time over the weekend.
In an email, California Station HOA president Shirley Sutton said that her board hasn't heard from PG&E or the school district on Vargas' electrical utilities since Aug. 22, nor were they warned that the power was being turned on Monday morning. No one from PG&E or its subcontractor warned homeowners that there would be a roughly seven-hour power outage Sunday night as the final connection was made, Sutton said.
Vargas Elementary had been operating on a gas generator, a costly alternative that came with a host of logistical challenges. The school's elevator could not operate on a temporary power source, meaning the second-story classrooms at the school could not be used, due to accessibility requirements. Three rooms designated as "flex" space had to be converted into classrooms, displacing after-school programs and the YMCA-run child care.
Because the gas generator was shut off at night, food had to be stored off-site instead of in the school's cafeteria, and janitorial work had to be completed early. The district also had to hire someone to act as a fire lookout while the fire alarm system was without power.
The temporary power source didn't get in the way of educating students, said Vargas third-grade teacher Sean Dechter. Power was fairly steady during school hours and only cut out once for a few hours when the generator ran out of gas. Dechter said his classroom currently doubles as the kindergarten YMCA room, and that he looks forward to having a permanent home room on the second floor.
Tallying up all the costs of extra construction, operating the generator and hiring a fire watch, the district spent an estimated $156,703, according to district spokeswoman Shelly Hausman. Even though it took several months, district officials say that it took advocacy work on the part of trustees and help from state Assemblyman Marc Berman to expedite PG&E's construction work through the fall.
One of the side effects is that the school still does not have field space, which was supposed to be completed in October. District staff members were reluctant to remove temporary portable buildings located on the future field, fearing that the space might be needed pending a resolution between PG&E and the HOA. The plan is to have the field done by February, but that hinges on good weather this winter, Hausman said.