Santa Ana Schools Can Create Needed Seats, but Campus Plans Face Cutbacks

Times Staff Writer

The Santa Ana Unified School District will likely be able to keep its promise to create about 14,000 new classroom seats, but will probably fail to build the number of campuses proposed when voters passed a bond measure four years ago.

That was the preliminary conclusion released Monday night during a session with a consultant hired to make sense of an estimated $100 million in cost escalations in the district's aggressive construction campaign.

The consultant's financial analysis of 31 proposed projects -- new construction, modernizations and additions -- showed that if five of the projects were dropped, the district would still lack about $5 million to complete the remaining ones.

To handle that shortfall, the district would also need to drop one of the construction projects proposed at Mountain View High, Lorin Griset Elementary, Heroes Elementary and Otsuka Elementary, said Board President Rosemarie Avila.

Trustee Rob Richardson said too many projects had been added to the construction campaign and "we are now dealing with the hard realities."

District officials blame the funding gap on statewide increases in real estate and construction costs, a board policy to hire only union contractors, and the inefficiency of the construction management company hired in 2000 to oversee the building campaign.

Some board members blame former trustees for their alliance with Del Terra Construction Group of Los Angeles. The new majority on the board voted in February to fire Del Terra, alleging gross mismanagement, and sued the company. Del Terra officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The advice on which projects to pursue came as part of a report from Capital Program Management of Sacramento, which will be paid as much as $766,000 to make sense of the spending patterns in the district's construction campaign.

Capital Program Management was hired in August as new school board members sought to unravel problems related to construction delays. Voters approved a $145-million bond in 1999 on the promise that the district would build two high schools and 11 elementary schools, expand two schools and modernize or expand an unspecified number of others. No new construction has been completed.

Work has begun on three new schools -- Segerstrom High School, Manuel Esqueda Elementary School and Hector Godines Fundamental High School -- and on 10 existing campuses where improvements or additions are planned.

Instead of new construction, the district is now focusing on additions and modernizations. Capital Program consultant Jay Davison suggested the district pursue modernizations at 11 other schools because the state has reserved about $25 million in funding for those. But those projects will not add a significant number of classroom seats, said Margie Brown, district facilities planner.

Nonetheless, the district will be able to meet its goal to increase the number of seats because the two high schools under construction have been increased in size from 1,800 students to 2,500 each, Avila said.

"We will be able to keep the promise in seats.... I think we are doing pretty good," she said.

Other trustees, voters and members of the district's bond oversight committee expressed concern Monday about the district's revised plans and questioned whether the district will fall short on its promise to create the 14,000 classroom seats.

"They went from schools to seats," said parent Kim Gerda. "I do not think [trustees] were forthright with the public."

Bond oversight committee member Alfredo Amezcua said he worried that neighborhood schools were being forfeited because of budgetary constraints.

Like Gerda and Amezcua, school board trustees said they were also eager to get more information from Capital Management that will show how $108 million of the $145 million was spent. Capital Management has promised to study the expenditures and report to the board.

"We need to go back to the [bond] and see what happened," said Audrey Yamagata-Noji, elected to the board in late 2002. "The big question is whether the board squandered the money."

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