Step By Step

Imagine a $38 million modernization project that requires more than half of a district's students to be displaced into interim portable buildings for a portion of the year. Add to this a complete change in grade configurations throughout the district, opening three middle schools and implementing 20:1 student/teacher ratios in grades K-3. Don't forget the day-to-day operations of a hectic school year. Sound like a challenge?

This is what the San Lorenzo Unified School District, Calif., has been working to accomplish over the past couple of years. The district would be the first to say that it has been challenging, but with hard-working staff and a positive look toward the future, the transitions the district has been making have been remarkably smooth.

Showing its age San Lorenzo is an urban school district located primarily in the unincorporated area between Hayward and San Leandro in the San Francisco East Bay. When the project started in 1997, every school in the district was more than 30 years old. All qualified for modernization funds under California's State Building Aid Program, but no funds were available. In addition, because of time constraints to open the schools in September 1998, coupled with uncertainty about the amount of community support, passing a bond issue did not seem likely. The district opted for a certificate of participation (COP), which is similar to a bonding mechanism, but instead of pledging tax roles, the district pledges the general fund as a repayment source.

"We borrowed $17 million about a year and a half ago, and that's the money that has been used to modernize these first five schools in phase one," says Arnie Glassberg, assistant superintendent, business services. "We finally have been approved for funding for these five schools from the state, so we will be getting about 8 million from the state. And that will help us get started on our phase-two schools. Hopefully, the state will approve our phase-two schools and we will get the funding for them, and that will help us fund our phase-three schools."

With so many schools to modernize and limited funds, the district cannot make changes that are as dramatic as it may like. However, paint, technology access, new heating systems and, when affordable, new lighting go a long way in giving the schools a fresh look. Other changes that drain district funds but are necessary include new roofing, electrical upgrades and HVAC systems. Unfortunately, these are not as noticeable to outsiders.

"The high schools are going to be a challenge because they are big, and just the money to replace the boiler systems with individual heat units, and upgrading the electrical, is going to drain so much of the budget," says Glassberg. "That's unfortunate, but the paint alone just makes a huge difference. And at both of our high schools we have some serious roofing problems."

Another challenge schools in this area face is the cost of construction. Costs can be higher here than other parts of the country because of the extra work required to minimize building damage in the event of an earthquake. And this district sits right near an earthquake fault.

"In most states outside of California, it costs less to build, so the money goes a lot farther. We're at the point now to where it's probably $10 million to build an elementary school," says Glassberg. "That's a lot of money, and then we're looking at $150 a square foot just for construction."

Moving on With a huge project such as this, communication with staff and the community becomes key.

"We have been meeting with the individual staffs on the phase-two school project. Every week now we're meeting with a different one. What we're trying to do is prepare them for what changes they're going to see, and what they're going to get," says Glassberg. "They understand the concept that some of them are going to be in the interim portables all year. We let them know how we are going to make the move and how we're going to support them."

However, moving teachers and students constantly throughout the year has evolved into a relatively smooth process.

"It has been great because our buildings and grounds department has got it down to a science," says Glassberg. "We give the teachers a week's notice, more if we can, that the wing that they came from is going to be completed. We provide them with boxes, they pack up, and they tell us where they want their furniture. There's obviously some chaos the next day back, but given the circumstances, they've done a great job."

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