A consultant hired to salvage Santa Ana Unified School District's overextended construction budget proposes dropping plans for seven new elementary schools as well as five smaller projects that already have cost about $15 million, documents show.
Although more than half that money could be recouped by selling land no longer needed for construction, the balance was likely wasted, school board members said.
"Unfortunately, some of that is the cost of doing business," said Audrey Yamagata-Noji, who as a new board member has sought to reorder an overly ambitious construction campaign.
The district's consultant recommends that it cut from 11 to four the number of new neighborhood schools and focus instead on modernizing and enlarging existing structures -- including nearly doubling the size of some schools.
Board member Rob Richardson likened the budget predicament to a restaurant visit. Former trustees, he said, "picked everything on the menu, and no one was there to pay the bill. We are at the point when we cannot get everything on the menu."
To help rethink construction plans, the board in August hired Capital Program Management of Sacramento. The firm has proposed modernizing 11 schools in order to tap nearly $25 million in state funds. But if those goals are pursued, five other projects already in the works would be abandoned because of budget shortfalls.
The district has spent $15 million on those projects, including land acquisition for Lorin Griset Elementary School, additions to Kennedy Elementary School and Carr Intermediate School, and expansion and modernization of Santa Ana Valley High School, documents show.
In addition, the district would have to abandon one more project -- possibly the construction of Mountain View High School, where at least $2.8 million has been spent on consultants and processing construction bids. Board President Rosemarie Avila said she was considering dropping the school because she did not like its location and because it would serve fewer than 400 students.
Plans for some facilities could be used at other sites, and land purchased could be sold, board members said. The board spent $8 million to buy land for Griset Elementary, which may instead be built elsewhere on land already owned by the district.
The property, recently appraised at $9.7 million, has already attracted 20 bidders, said district spokeswoman Lucy Araujo-Cook.
The school board's plans are vastly different from what was conceived when voters approved a $145-million construction bond in 1999. Then, the district promised to build 11 elementary and two high schools while modernizing an unspecified number of campuses.
The district hired Del Terra Construction Group in 2000 to oversee the construction program, but fired the company in February because of growing construction delays and steadily increasing costs. The district sued Del Terra, alleging gross mismanagement.
Del Terra President Luis Rojas said the district was warned about budget constraints.
"We are not at all surprised by the [new] consultant's report. Del Terra warned the district as early as 2000 that its original [bond] budget was inadequate to build the number of schools it promised," Rojas said. "We repeatedly advised the district that it needed to reduce the number of new schools. For whatever reason, the district staff and its administration were not willing to share that information with the school board."
The new plan under discussion calls for constructing two or three high schools, four elementary schools, additional classrooms at four elementary schools and modernizing 11 other schools. The projects would be funded from the local construction bond supplemented with state money.
Decisions about which projects to pursue, and which seven new elementary schools to drop from the construction budget, have not been made. District officials did not respond to repeated queries about how much money the district will save or what construction costs would be under the new proposal.
Capital Program Management will offer more information to board members at Tuesday's meeting.
The new building strategy calls for larger -- but fewer -- schools than originally planned, so more students can be accommodated without having to buy land.
For example, high schools originally designed to accommodate 1,500 students, and then 1,800 are now planned to serve 2,500 each. Manuel Esqueda Elementary School was designed for 650 students, but was retooled to handle 850, then 1,200 and now 1,500.
Araujo-Cook said the district will likely be able to increase classroom seats by 14,000 by expanding existing schools rather than building new ones, as originally planned.
"Adding seats is not necessarily bad in a landlocked city," said Araujo-Cook. Additions at four elementary schools, which are almost complete and will replace portable classrooms, have given students, "not only a more aesthetically pleasing facility with bathrooms but we have recaptured playground space. When you think about it, we added what amounts to four new elementary schools. We've given parents and students something to be proud of."
But parents and members of the district's bond oversight committee expressed concern at a recent board meeting that the new schools are too large.
"This a blow," said parent Kim Gerda. "People are not going to the middle schools. They are not going to the high schools because they think they are dangerous and overcrowded" and are choosing private education instead.
The head of the bond oversight committee said the district is doing the best it can in a difficult situation.
Larger schools are "the best we can hope for, considering the mistakes in the past," said Michael Metzler, committee chairman. "Obviously we would like to build more schools, but the reality is
Bill Fogarty, chairman of the original bond committee, said he was disappointed that the district did not build schools faster and is not building what it promised.
"I feel frustrated. The district has not done what it said it was going to do," Fogarty said. The new plan "is a Band-Aid."