ALAMEDA'S SCHOOL FACILITIES: Many needs, little money
ALAMEDA'S SCHOOL FACILITIES: Many needs, little money
Robby Lyng and his crew do their best to maintain the 88-year-old lockers at Historic Alameda High School.
“We repair them. But they’re so old, it’s hard to get replacement parts,” said Lyng, the Alameda Unified School District’s maintenance, operations and facilities chief, as he and another district official took a reporter on a tour of the school.
A thick, caulk-sealed “expansion joint” along the back of the historic campus serves as a line of demarcation between the center portion, which is earthquake-safe, and the eastern portion of the campus, which isn’t. (The West Wing at Central and Walnut, built in 1957, has also been deemed earthquake-safe, as has the school's Academic Building, which houses most of its classes.) Only one of the three massive boilers that provide heat and hot water for the campus is still working, and district officials believe that some of the windows along the back of the building, if opened, would fall out.
“There probably isn’t a window on the back side (of the building) that doesn’t need replacement,” Chief Business Officer Robert Shemwell said.
A facilities study commissioned by the district and released in June estimated that Alameda High School needs nearly $20 million worth of upgrades and fixes, above and beyond the $887,000 plus contingencies the school district is already paying for temporary retrofit work that includes more than a half million dollars for structural upgrades, nearly $123,000 for a stair protection structure and repairs to stairs and a $211,300, eight-foot fence which district officials said is intended to protect students and passers-by in the event of an earthquake.
All told, the district’s schools need an estimated $92 million worth of work that includes a host of basic maintenance issues – floors, windows, lockers, paint and roofing – to outright replacement of rotting portables and modular buildings on several of the district’s campuses, a team from Quattrocchi Kwok Architects wrote in the facilities report. The list of fixes includes the replacement of aging mechanical and sewage systems and boilers and mitigation of seismic issues identified at five schools, including Alameda High.
In addition to new lockers, the high school needs new paint, floors, windows, lighting and roofing; new boilers and heating, ventilation and cooling systems; accessibility fixes and electrical upgrades that would make the campus more computer-friendly. And like most of the district’s schools, Alameda High lacks fire sprinklers, another recommended improvement.
This fall, the Board of Education will begin to discuss which of the dozens of fixes needs listed in the facilities report to be addressed first and where the money to pay for those fixes will come from – a discussion for which the fence at Historic Alameda High has provided a stark visual. A key discussion point will be whether to keep using – and maintaining – all of the district’s existing facilities, or to build new ones – a decision that could mean fewer and bigger schools.
“If you look at facilities of this age, in these states of condition – invariably, you’re going to come out cheaper rebuilding a school that you would be modernizing,” Shemwell said during a pre-tour interview on the district’s facilities. “I think you would find that $20 million in routine maintenance would probably go a long, long way to getting you a brand new facility somewhere.”
The school board could decide to ask voters to approve a bond, something the board has done several times over the years to help address the district’s facilities needs. But even if they were successful in winning voter approval of bond funding, finding land where new schools could be placed is an additional challenge they will face.
The district’s schools are dotted with add-ons, portables and modular buildings added over the years to address outsize enrollment, and many were built on campuses that are much smaller than recommended - without facilities needed for computers and other modern-day use.
“It’s absolutely fair and correct to say that these facilities were not designed to be utilized as we’re utilizing today,” Shemwell said.
One case in point: Woodstock Education Center, a former elementary school which now houses the Bay Area School of Enterprise charter, a preschool and Alameda’s adult school. In addition to flooring, doors and roofing, the $6 million list of fixes includes replacing modular classrooms there with permanent ones. The 62-year-old campus’s soil is subsiding, and in addition to extensive grading and repaving fixes, the report’s authors recommended that a geotechnical study be commissioned to further examine the problem.
“Given the current enrollment of this campus for all (3) programs at approximately 300 students, the District must decide the cost effectiveness of improving and maintaining this facility for its long term needs,” the report’s authors wrote.
Shemwell and Lyng said they are struggling to maintain all of the district’s schools in the face of their advancing age – and Alameda’s low water table and variable soil conditions. Shortly before the start of school last year, seawater knocked out Encinal High School’s main electrical – a problem that, had it occurred two weeks later, could have delayed the start of school for those students, Shemwell said.
“We constantly felt like firemen, putting out fires. We never knew when the next crisis would pop up,” he said.
Built in 1965, Wood Middle School may not be the district’s oldest facility – most of the district’s schools are older – but with more than $7.7 million in needed upgrades identified by the report, it could be one of the district’s costliest to fix. Exterior framing was erected around the school, which was constructed on Bay fill, as an earthquake safety measure in 2000; other fixes made that year included heating and ventilation systems, fire alarm repairs, an elevator tower, accessibility and restroom upgrades. In 2008, the district used some of the $63 million in Measure C bond funds voters okayed four years earlier to replace the school’s fire alarm system and roof, reconfigure administrative offices that were at the school, make accessibility fixes and repaint it.
But a modular classroom wing that serve’s the schools sixth graders is at the end of its life, the report says, as are the school’s windows, doors and floors, walls, lockers and ceilings. Its computer lab is housed in a former classroom that lacks an adequate data backbone and cooling system, the report says, and its kitchen – which produces lunches for nearly all the schools in the district – is too small for the food it is required to produce.
Six of the district’s 10 elementary schools have passed the half-century mark (Edison is the oldest, a Works Progress Administration project built in 1940), with needs that range from replacement of a wood flag pole at Otis and a bullet hole-marked window at Paden to replacement of Franklin’s mechanical system and of rotting portables at Edison and Haight, with per-school costs from $736,944 at Ruby Bridges to over $5 million at Maya Lin (formerly Washington). Only two elementary schools – Ruby Bridges and Bay Farm, the district’s newest – have fire sprinklers, and the report’s authors said several also need hydrants.
But even the district’s newer schools are experiencing maintenance issues. Shemwell said the district found design flaws in the construction of Ruby Bridges, built in 2006 for around $22 million, that district officials are hoping the contractors who built the school will fix. And the district has had to do grading and repaving work at Bay Farm school, built in 1991, because while the school is stable, the land that surrounds it is sinking.
“The Island’s sinking, but the school is not,” Shemwell said.
In addition to Historic Alameda High, four other campuses – Encinal High School and Edison and Franklin elementary schools and Maya Lin – have seismic issues, the report said. Shemwell said that only those at Alameda High posed a safety risk, though he said district officials would further examine additional studies of seismic issues at Encinal and Maya Lin.
“At this point, on the seismic side of it, I feel we’ve taken every precaution to ensure that those are facilities that would hold up well, would be reasonably expected to hold up well, in a seismic event” he said. “There’s nothing at this point that they would say, ‘You’ve got a health and human safety issue here.’ But the area of the long-term viability of the structure, we want to take a look at.”
Some fixes called for in the district’s schools, like dual-pane windows and energy control systems, would save the district money by cutting its energy costs; others are for items like kitchens at many of the district’s schools that are no longer used, and still others were completed over the summer using the remainder of the Measure C bond funds (the district also qualified for an additional $17 million in state matching funds). But some of the schools may need more work than what’s listed in the report; it calls for more than $300,000 in additional studies to explore several additional issues.
Shemwell said Alameda Unified’s options for funding the fixes are limited; the district takes in $2 million to $3 million each year that could be used to take care of projects outlined in the report. He thinks gaining voter approval of a bond may be the district’s best one, though he allowed that it’s up to the school board to put one on the ballot – and they haven’t expressed an interest in doing that yet.
The state has a bevy of programs aimed at facilitating school construction and improvements, including one that provides matching funding for school modernization projects. Shemwell said the district doesn’t have the enrollment growth to qualify for new school construction funds from the state, though it could apply for “hardship” funding to fix a building that poses seismic safety issues like Historic Alameda High.
Shemwell acknowledged that the district hasn’t spent all of the bond money it collected in the past as well as it could have. The district spent $1 million in Measure C funds on windows and paint at the Alameda Adult School, which it vacated due to seismic safety issues as the job was nearing completion, and its schools host an array of different phone and fire alarm systems which he said were contracted individually to low bidders, rather than as systems that were uniform district-wide.
“Past bonds were (spent) piecemeal – a roof here, floors there, an alarm system here,” Shemwell said. “If we continue down that pathway, we’re not addressing the core issue, which is, ‘How do we get back to ensuring that in 30, 40, 50 years we have facilities for our kids to attend?’”
Shemwell and Lyng said they’d like to get the district to be more strategic in its modernization efforts, and to standardize its systems and to put schools on routine maintenance schedules for painting, roofing and other needs. But it will be up to the school board – and the community – to decide whether to fix up the district’s existing schools or to build new ones.
“We’re very much a school district that runs and operates kind of on a 1950s school model. We have a lot of small, neighborhood schools – part of the look, feel and attraction of Alameda. That is not a very typical lineup for school districts in this day and age,” Shemwell said.
Shemwell said district officials aren’t suggesting a particular route or plan for what Alameda Unified’s schools should look like – though he also said the district could spend the same amount educating 600 students in a building as they do 300 students in one.
“We need to look at where our kids will go to school 30 to 40 years from now. Without some significant investment and planning, it’s not going to be in these facilities,” Shemwell said. “I think every family, as much as they love these neighborhood schools, could start picking apart pieces where they find it really indicative of an inefficient facility for their kids to learn in.”
You can view our photo slideshow of Historic Alameda High by clicking the photo above; a chart listing each facility, its age and the cost of recommended fixes, is attached below.