The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District generally chooses not to argue with citizens in the press or social media. However, the current misinformation campaign requires clarification. Astoundingly, the “Your Column Here” opinion piece, published on February 2, 2021 by SMDP with the statement “SMMUSD is Burning Through Our Bond Money. Again.” introduces misleading and untrue statements before the first sentence is over. Opinions can differ but in order for our discourse to be of value, those opinions must be grounded in facts.
Fact: The district does have enough money to complete the projects promised in its bond campaigns. It is accurate to state that the district’s overall facility needs exceed available funding, which is the case for virtually every school district in the state. The author, after becoming engaged in this topic in October during her failed campaign for a seat on the SMMUSD school board, inaccurately claims that the five-year old Samohi Campus Plan is wasteful because it does not keep the History Building, which is slated for demolition. The History Building has been conclusively determined not to constitute a historical resource, yet the author and a small band of people who oppose the district at every turn, continue to clamor for “adaptive reuse” of the building ignoring the needs of students.
Fact: Elementary and middle school campuses are not in a state of disrepair. As evidenced by the recent assessments and community campus planning process, elementary and middle schools do need improvements and better learning facilities, as does Samohi. Proclaiming that they are, or will remain, in disrepair is disingenuous, at the very least. Since 2015, the district has completed or is in the process of modernizing all campuses. Technology upgrades have been completed at every district campus, along with installation of a new IT “backbone” to support today’s technology needs.
Fact: Modernization projects (called colloquially “Window, Paint, Floor, and Door”) have been completed at Franklin, Grant, Juan Cabrillo (now part of Malibu High), Malibu Elementary (formerly Point Dume), McKinley, Roosevelt, Webster, and Will Rogers Elementary Schools, as well as at the Michelle and Barack Obama Center for Inquiry and Excellence (formerly Olympic High School). The final campus in this modernization process, Muir/SMASH, will begin this summer. In addition, new air conditioning has been installed at Franklin, Malibu Elementary, McKinley, Webster, John Adams Middle School, and the Obama Center. Air conditioning, is scheduled to be installed at Grant, Muir/SMASH, Rogers, Roosevelt, and Lincoln Middle School beginning this summer.
Contrary to the author’s unsubstantiated accusations, SMMUSD does not have a track record of financial mismanagement. The opposite is true, as evidenced by years of positive audit results. The Bond Oversight Committee meets regularly.
In discussing the John Adams Middle School Performing Arts Complex, the columnist demonstrates a genuine lack of understanding by conflating the construction cost estimate of a smaller, theoretical, theater-only construction project to the total project cost of a larger project. The total project cost includes far more than just the cost of actual construction, such as design, permitting fees, geotechnical studies, hazardous materials investigations, inspection, construction management and new furniture, fixtures, and equipment.
The Innovation Building at Samohi that the columnist refers to as “now up to $93 million” was actually completed and occupied in August 2015. Incidentally, if anyone is interested in hearing from then-current students about how dramatically this building improved their Samohi experience, we suggest you check out the presentation and public comments from the January 21, 2021 school board meeting.
With respect to the Innovation Building, the columnist again, perhaps intentionally, conflates the construction cost with the total project cost. Obviously, there are project costs that go beyond the cost of actual construction, as described above. Facts: The original budget for the Innovation project was $84.7 million. There were some challenges, not unprecedented on a project of this magnitude, and the total project cost ended up at $93.2 million, an increase of $8.5 million, or 10%, not 69%. The original construction contract was $55 million, which is likely where the author got her ill-informed interpretation of the budget.
As is typical during most construction projects, there were change orders during construction. In addition, due to certain conflicts, there was a significant claim by the original contractor and its subcontractors, which the district settled in mediation. The final construction contract amount, including change orders and settlements, was $55,038,740. This is a net change to the contract of 0.07%.
The district began development of a master plan some 15 years ago, which was never finalized. Prior to completing that process, it was determined at that time the highest needs for Measure BB funding were a new campus for Edison Language Academy, which serves a high need sector of students in the district through its Spanish language dual-immersion program, and the Innovation Building at Samohi, which replaced the outdated and dilapidated science and technology buildings.
The author again erroneously claims that the district has some unspecified list of “promised” projects that it cannot afford to complete, which is ironic since she has now closely aligned herself with a group of perpetual district opponents who complained loudly during the last bond campaign that the district didn’t even have a list of projects that it planned to complete. It’s hard to square these two concepts, on the one hand claiming that the district had no idea what it was going to build, while simultaneously claiming that the district has promised a list of projects that it is now not building. This has in no way led to prioritizing expensive and unnecessary new construction over essential projects. The vast majority of the projects that the district has undertaken have been modernization projects, not new construction. SMMUSD does consider the financial, environmental, and educational benefits of adaptive reuse, but it is clear that adaptive reuse cannot always be the answer, because it is not always in the best interest of student education.
The author, after seeing the resounding public support from more than 50 public speakers at the last school board meeting, attempts to belittle those who were willing to spend six-plus hours on a week night just to implore the board to move forward with the Samohi Campus Plan that the district has been implementing for the past five years. She compares this outpouring of passionate support to the online petition that she personally started in an effort to gain traction in her bid for a school board seat, which was “signed” by people who needed to do nothing more than click a button, and a significant portion of whom have no connection to Samohi.
The district’s primary obligation is to provide the best education possible to its students and a major focus of that is providing the best educational spaces possible. To the author’s point, SMMUSD campuses are ready for students to return to school safely. In spaces that have existing HVAC systems, those systems have all been upgraded with ionization systems to increase the filtering efficiency to capture airborne virus molecules. In spaces that do not have existing HVAC systems, the district has purchased and is installing stand-alone filtration units, as has been reported at more than one school board meeting.
The district welcomes community input into its projects and will continue to expand its efforts to gain a broader and deeper level of input. But, it will not be held hostage by a small, yet surprisingly loud minority who oppose the district at every turn and who petulantly proclaim that the district is doing something nefarious every time these naysayers do not get their way.
Submitted by Gail Pinsker on behalf of SMMUSD