Bay Area districts took different routes on historic high schools

Bay Area districts took different routes on historic high schools

Michele Ellson

Should Alameda Unified renovate Historic Alameda High School, repurpose or rebuild it? It’s a question they’ve posed to the public – and one other Bay Area school districts have grappled with in different ways.

Cost estimates for repairing seismically unsafe portions of the 88-year-old campus – which housed an adult school and district offices until this past year, when they were moved due to seismic safety concerns – are being discussed at a community meeting scheduled for Thursday. The estimates hadn’t yet been released Monday night.

After a 2000 earthquake heavily damaged the Napa Education Center – which houses the Napa Valley Unified School District’s offices and a theater – schools leaders opted to renovate the campus, which was built in 1922. Meanwhile, leaders of the San Mateo Union High School District chose to tear down and rebuild much of the San Mateo High School campus, which was built in 1927; the 1,500-student campus was vacated in 2001 after schools leaders determined it wasn’t earthquake-safe.

Renovating Napa Education Center cost $12 million, a tab that was paid using local bond money. A news story written when the new San Mateo High School opened, in September 2005, pegged the cost of rebuilding it at $57 million; the San Mateo high school district received some funding from a $35.4 billion state bond program and paid the rest of the cost of rebuilding the school with local bond money.

When schools leaders investigated the costs of rehabilitating and replacing Alameda High School in the 1970s, they were nearly the same. But the architect providing cost estimates for fixing Alameda High said things have changed.

“The cost of replacing (a school) would be far more than repairing it,” Mark Quattrochi of Quattrochi Kwok Architects said.

Quattrochi, whose firm also worked on the Napa Education Center project, said that building a new school up to Field Act standards – the state earthquake standards for schools – costs about $400 to $500 per square foot.

“It’s really expensive to build to Field Act standards,” he said.

But renovating an old school campus has its challenges too, an administrator for the San Mateo Union High School District said. Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth McManus said older buildings can hold costly surprises that increase rehabilitation costs and that modernization projects can be more costly than new construction.

“Because you’re going in and taking things down to the studs, and putting everything back – it’s more like a surgery than starting with a blank palette,” McManus said. “It’s a lot more complex. And you never know what you’re going to find when you do that, either.”

San Mateo schools leaders got just such a surprise in 2001 when, while preparing to modernize the school, they discovered its walls were not reinforced as required. District leaders had believed seismic and other fixes to the school in light of the discovery would cost $11 million, an amount that included razing buildings.

Authors of an environmental impact report issued a year later that looked at rehabilitation and rebuilding options for the school determined the alternatives they studied would cost between $43 million and $64 million. Schools leaders voted to tear down the school and build a new one; preservationists sued to save the school but the school district prevailed in the lawsuit.

The district ultimately tore down and rebuilt a bigger campus in the same style as the 1927 original, erecting three interconnected steel-frame buildings. The state provided about $6.9 million toward the $57 million cost of the project, the Department of General Services’ funding database shows.

The new, 140,000-square-foot campus houses 56 classrooms, computer labs, a library with a fireplace and a $2 million pool on roughly 40 acres, and serves about 1,500 students (McManus said the cost likely included portables used to house students while a new campus was being built). The project took 17 months to build.

The Napa Education Center, which has housed Napa’s administrative offices for several decades, opened in September 2004 with new steel-braced frames and other seismic upgrades, renovations to the campus’ 680-seat theater; a history museum; technology upgrades; mechanical, plumbing and electrical upgrades; and renovated administration and school board spaces. The renovation reportedly took about a year to complete.

The San Mateo High project was done with the aid of state bond funding, though almost all of that money has been spent and there isn’t a new bond issue headed to the ballot. The state has spent nearly $35 billion, a spokesperson for the Office of Public School Construction said; as of March 20, about $562 million remained.

California voters okayed four separate bond issues for school construction between 1998 and 2006; the amounts included about $16 billion for new school construction projects and another $10 billion for modernization projects, along with funding for charter school construction, career technical education facilities, energy efficiency and other efforts.

The state will pay between 50 and 60 percent for eligible costs, and more if a school district can demonstrate a financial hardship, the state’s funding guidelines show.

The San Mateo high school district got $5 million in modernization funds and another $1.3 million in financial hardship money, along with funding for fire code compliance and urban security measures. New school funding is allotted to districts that need new facilities to meet rising enrollment, while modernization funds are available for upgrading or replacing buildings that are at least 25 years old.

Many of the people who have participated in community meetings to discuss the future of the old high school campus have said they’d like to see it restored for student use. Kofman Auditorium has been deemed safe for students to use, but the buildings that flank it haven’t been used by students since the 1970s.

Other suggestions for the campus have included selling or leasing it for housing or other uses. But school districts seeking to sell property or offer for a lease of 30 days or more are required to offer it to government, nonprofit and other groups before putting it out on the open market, and a state law that went into effect in 2012 requires school districts to offer any space they’re seeking to sell or lease to charter schools prior to running down that list.

Officials with the California Department of Education said the process is designed to ensure the public continues to benefit from the property its tax dollars paid for.

“It’s very prescriptive. But it’s meant to be,” said Rob Corley, a field representative for the department.

Thursday’s meeting will be the fourth in a series of five community meetings intended to give members of the public a chance to learn about the history of the historic campus and offer their thoughts on what should be done with it. The last meeting is scheduled to take place at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday May 21, and at that meeting interest groups who have participated in discussions about the historic campus’ fate will be asked if they can find common ground.

All of the meetings are being held in the cafeteria at Alameda High School, which is at 2200 Central Avenue. The Alamedan will be offering a live video feed of Thursday’s meeting along with live Tweets.

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