School for Dinosaurs

— If the San Diego Unified School District were graded for bolstering mathematics and reading skills, the district might garner above-average marks. During the past two years, students in San Diego's public schools have significantly improved their scores on state examinations -- a goal of education superintendent Alan Bersin's "blueprint for student success."

The district's marks for adequately housing its 142,258 students wouldn't be as high. Many of the children in California's second-largest public school system attend classes in portables. Those temporary structures, however, may be preferable to permanent buildings with leaky roofs, broken pipes, peeling paint, rotten wood, cracked foundations, decrepit floors, and outmoded electrical and heating systems. Representing $258 million of deferred maintenance, such physical neglect coincides with classrooms crowded by San Diego's rising population of children.

In response, San Diego County voters approved Proposition MM, a $1.51 billion bond issue to build 14 new schools and repair 154 existing schools. That was two years ago. Progress is slow, according to the San Diego Unified School District's own records.

l No new schools are under construction yet, reflecting difficulties picking locations for campuses expected to displace thousands of homeowners and apartment dwellers.

l A new law requiring greater state participation in the environmental review of school sites has added to delays.

l Some aging schools have received badly needed renovations, but the district is at least a year behind its repair schedule.

l A last-minute decision in August to spend $7.8 million extra for new flooring warns the district might exceed budget.

l The district's Proposition MM Implementation Department has operated more than two years without a permanent director. Two different interim directors have shepherded the department's staff of 39, most of whom are school-district employees.

l The MM department has spent more than $2.5 million in administrative costs.

l Proposition MM aims to reduce the use of portable buildings, but more than $15 million has been spent on temporary classrooms.

l Not seeking competitive bids from subcontractors provoked a lawsuit, postponing work a year and costing more than $95,000 in legal fees.

Despite such setbacks, doling out passing or failing grades may be premature. Proposition MM, which lists more than 2500 separate building tasks to be completed by 2009, is arguably the most intricate construction project in San Diego County. It's the largest, too, based on the $1.51 billion to be spent.

Scott Barnett, executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, is concerned that more costly glitches -- totaling in the tens of millions of dollars -- could emerge during the next eight years. "I don't have any confidence that we're being told everything that's going wrong," he said. "The scary part is I don't think the school district knows everything. The MM staff is composed of nice, well-meaning, hard-working school employees, but they don't have the ability and expertise to manage the most complex public-works project in San Diego's history."

Although a permanent MM director is scheduled to join the district December 4, after being introduced to the school board this week, Barnett doubts whether that individual can reverse two years of floundering. "I don't care whether they bring in the president of Bechtel Corp.," Barnett said. "The basic problem is you've got a school administration that was created in the dinosaur age."

Barnett's harsh assessment is somewhat ironic. His association endorsed Proposition MM, provided the school district agree to catch up on repairs and create an advisory panel. While serving on the Proposition MM School Bond Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee during the past two years, Barnett has lost patience although he remains a member. He now recommends hiring a staff of outsiders to manage the construction project. "Separate the Prop MM structure from the school district. Run it like a separate entity. Go to the outside for payroll, accounting, engineering, architects, everything." The district's computers are so antiquated, Barnett said, the committee authorized buying a $500,000 computer system for the MM department to track expenses. Barnett said he has heard from subcontractors who claim they haven't been paid.

School officials, including Bersin, have been aware of Barnett's viewpoint for some time, said Tom Mitchell, the district's communications manager. "We just hired a Prop MM director with experience managing $7.2 billion projects. It would be inappropriate for us to make any staffing decisions. He'll organize his own team."

Gil Johnson, who replaced Barnett this year as committee chairman, disagrees that such radical change is necessary. "I'm not going to say the sky is falling. Sure, it has taken too long to hire an MM director, but what good does it do saying that? Yes, we should have known about the infamous tile issue prior to, not in the 11th hour," Johnson said, referring to the summer's cost overrun for replacing floors at 25 existing schools. "Out of $1.5 billion, there are going to be hiccups. We're going to work the process."

Johnson and Barnett are among 11 committee members -- all volunteers -- who work the process by attending monthly meetings and studying voluminous reports, which show the district has completed less than half of the work expected. For example, the district spent $54.3 million for repairs and renovations through June, compared with the original timetable's projected expenditures of $140 million. The gap narrows, however, on comparing repair bills totaling $80.7 million through September with a revised timetable calling for work valued at $167.9 million.

At their October meeting, oversight-committee members proofread a second draft of their annual report and letter to taxpayers. "The first version wasn't substantial. This version has more meat without being combative," Johnson said. "It should not be hostile. Our vantage point is to move the process forward, not throw rocks." In that spirit, one committee member suggested removing a description of the committee as being "frustrated" by the district's inconsistent financial reporting.

Other excerpts from the draft include: "Proposition MM work and related expenditures are dramatically below the expectations of early plans.... Initial requests for additional staff to manage the greater volume and complexity of work were considered too high by the district and too low by outside consultants.... District oversight failed to uncover violations of labor laws in completed contracts.... In the haste to complete work before the start of school, accountability was lost. A unified management infrastructure capable of planning, coordinating, and executing a program the size and complexity of Proposition MM is critically needed but is not yet fully in place."

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