CITYWIDE — Santa Monica is no stranger to construction — new apartments and office buildings shrouded in tarp and scaffolding sprout like mushrooms in the sea mist.
Lately, however, Santa Monicans have been seeing a different kind of plan in the pipeline — school campuses all across the city have laid the groundwork to change the face of local education and there’s more on the way.
Santa Monica High’s new science and technology building was almost half done at the end of March, all steel girders and exposed electrical work, and St. Monica Catholic School has begun work on its new community center, which aimed to replace an old pastoral center with underground parking, new facilities for the high school and a renovated gymnasium, amongst other things.
This week, it’s likely that Crossroads School, another private school in town, will get its project in front of the Planning Commission, beginning what could be a long process of public meetings so that it can start its own science building, even as New Roads School puts the finishing touches on what it dubs the “educational village.”
Although those projects share a common mission — pushing forward education — school leaders have to go down markedly different roads to achieve their goals, processes that lead to disparities in how the public can get involved in the shape and function of the projects.
It’s an interesting case of “compare and contrast” between public schools, which as governmental entities unto themselves do not have to go to City Hall for the right to build, and private schools, which do.
By the time Barbara Whitney walks out of the May 1 Planning Commission meeting, no one with access to CityTV or an Internet connection will have to make that mistake about her project.
Whitney is the director of finance and operations for Crossroads School, a private campus that provides instruction to kindergartners and high school seniors alike. The school wants to build a three-story, 12-classroom science and learning center on its campus near Interstate 10, a project meant to push the school’s educational mission forward.
To get it, however, Whitney must get special permission from City Hall in the form of a development agreement, a contract that allows developers — in this case the school — to exceed normal limitations on building in exchange for perks that ostensibly benefit the community.
It’s usually a long process, sometimes taking years to make its way through the commission and then final approval by the City Council. It’s also a very public one, often involving multiple hearings before both city bodies that are broadcast live and recorded for posterity.
Ultimately, the decision for what happens to the $20 million construction project lies in the hands of seven city officials who have thousands of constituents, many of whom carry consistent worries about parking, traffic and construction impacts.
That has less to do with schools than other kinds of construction, because the new project won’t be bringing new people to the city, just providing facilities for the ones that are already here.
Still, from start to finish, the private route has its advantages.
Crossroads began planning for its building in 2010, and hopes to break ground by the end of the year — they only have one shot to start construction this year.
That’s a far cry from the process Samohi had to follow for its larger, more expensive building near a residential neighborhood, one that found its roots in a 2001 assessment that found $1.2 billion worth of facilities improvements and needs in the public school district.
Much of that was dictated by laws attached to Measure BB, a 2006 bond measure that put $268 million in the hands of district leaders to improve schools and even replace some campuses entirely, not to mention public schools’ ace in the hole — as a government entity, they do not have to make the trip to City Hall.
Although autonomy is a powerful thing, it comes at a price. Even those who are intimately familiar with the project design and approval process find it convoluted and difficult to access, particularly for those who don’t have children in the school system.
That may be why some people still call the Daily Press asking about what they believe is a new parking structure being built on the Samohi campus.
“If people see it and don’t know how it got there, we need to do a better job as we go forward in involving the community so they understand this is a state-of-the-art project,” said Judith Meister, member of the BB advisory committee, a group that is supposed to inform the Board of Education about community feelings around the BB projects.
Meister also participated in the site leadership building committee, an entity meant to give parents and others a voice in where their tax dollars go, and shape the way the project takes form.
Although the meetings are open to anybody who wants to come, it’s often the parents at the school rather than other community members impacted by the project that show up. Even that membership is less than stable — planning for construction projects takes years, sometimes longer than parents have students in the school district.
It’s something that Meister believes the district can fix as it heads into its newest bond issue, the $385 million Measure ES passed in November that will bring safety improvements like fire sprinklers to the 100-year-old Samohi campus.
As the district becomes ever-more integrated with the community, sharing its fields and libraries, it needs to gather input from residents about what should happen on the campuses, Meister said.
“I think what happens on campus can touch the community,” she said.
With that in mind, there will be a number of changes to the ES process compared to how BB rolled out, said Laurie Lieberman, president of the Board of Education.
For the first time, there will be a super site committee in Malibu — as well as dedicated funds for the schools there — to test ideas and improve communication with the other half of the school community, which otherwise must drive to Santa Monica to get involved with the process, and some improved form of outreach for nearby residents, Lieberman said.
“I think to the extent that what we do here impacts the larger community, and certainly the construction phase does, if nothing else, it’s important to work with the community to make that process go as smoothly as possible,” Lieberman said.
That will be especially true when it comes to parking at Samohi, always a hot button issue.
Wherever ideas come from — be they because community members reached out through meetings or less conventional methods — they’re welcome, Lieberman said.
“There will be structured opportunities for participation and we welcome input that comes in non-structured ways,” she said. “We will need to be cognizant of involving neighboring communities, especially for construction and also other work that will be done on campus.”