The millions of dollars needed to restore the heavily water damaged John Muir Elementary/SMASH (Santa Monica Alternative School House) campus in Ocean Park are expected to soak up funding that was earmarked for modernization projects on other elementary school campuses.

When it comes to financing the so-called Water Intrusion Project, currently estimated at $19.6 million, the local school district needs to make some tough financial decisions, deferring projects at other school sites around Santa Monica.

On Sept. 1, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education will be tasked with deciding whether to pursue a full replacement of the damaged Muir/SMASH campus or embark an extensive repair; in addition, board members will be asked to determine what capital projects are priorities in order to gather the funds necessary to restore use of the 26-year-old campus, which is located on Ocean Park Boulevard between 5th and 6th streets.

When classes resumed for students across the city earlier this month, the nearly 500 pupils formerly attending school on that campus were displaced, making the restoration of the John Muir/SMASH campus a high priority for school district leadership. But what future improvements to other campuses should be shelved — temporarily, staff hope — is a tougher decision to make.

On Monday evening, Aug. 22, the Santa Monica Facilities District Advisory Committee met to discuss options in order to make suggestions to the SMMUSD Board ahead of its upcoming meeting. 

When it came to the $19.6 million cost estimate, committee member Sam Levitt said he suspected the final tabulation may be much higher than the current $3 million built-in contingency.

“You’ve got a $3 million contingency because, as we’ve all readily admitted — as we’ve heard everyone admit here — this building has been mismanaged from the get-go,” Levitt said, later adding, “What we’ve heard in this outline is that the site hasn’t been managed and the repair work that’s been done hasn’t been impactful. And so, yeah, it’s sunk cost, but it’s a whole lot of sunk cost that’s been lost on a building. And what’s the confidence level in the next set of work actually remediating the issues at hand, and frankly, that the contingency is going to cover what we continue to find as we open up walls, and as we as we dive into these things?”

Staff argued that, despite the long history of water damage and ineffective repair work at the campus, a full replacement would be more costly and time consuming than the repairs they envisioned. 

Bond Program Manager Steve Massetti said it was “silly” to compare the cost of replacing the current building with the actual cost of a new building, since if they were to start over, the District would opt for a larger facility with more modern amenities in its place, not to mention a full replacement would take about two years longer than a repair — “We’re looking at something like $15 million versus $55 million, Massetti estimated.

Committee member Alexis Dennis-Heuther said a full replacement would potentially harm public trust in the District.

“For sustainability purposes, we don’t want to tear a building down that has plenty of things that are still usable … ,” Dennis-Heuther said. “So, I would be very strongly recommending that.” 

Staff also affirmed their prioritization of the Muir Elementary site for a local elementary school, noting that although the SMMUSD has space to fit students in at various other schools, class sizes would be larger than their own preferences (also known as ed spec).

In the end, the committee voted, 4-1, to suggest the repair of the campus rather than its replacement, with Levitt voting “no” and another committee member, Thomas Malayil, abstaining.

Committee members were split as to which other projects should be paused in order to make the repair work happen.

Funding for all of this work will come from the $485 million 2018 Measure SMS school bond, which passed with overwhelming support from Santa Monica voters. The majority of that bond money went toward the overhaul of Samohi’s aged campus, but the District intended to use the remainder for modernization of several other schools.

A little more than $88 million remains in the bond, which as of February was set aside for projects at Will Rogers, Grant, Franklin and McKinley elementary schools, plus John Adams Middle School (JAMS). Because the JAMS project is by far the smallest, with a $1.6 million price tag, staff and committee members did not consider it to be delayed. That leaves the four elementary school projects on the chopping block.

Among the six committee members present at the Monday meeting, opinion was split, with three voting to recommend deferring the $37.4 million McKinley Elementary project (to replace portable classrooms with a new classroom building and makerspace) and three voting to recommend deferring both the $13.9 million Grant Elementary project (a new library, remodeled courtyard and new pre-K and kindergarten facilities) and the $10.4 million Franklin Elementary project (a new makerspace and patio/outdoor classroom). 

All three committee members who voted to defer the McKinley project did so for the same reason: the financial flexibility it would afford. They requested District staff inform School Board members of the reasoning behind their decision.

“The summary that I would provide would be that the committee was split between deferring Grant/Franklin and deferring McKinley,” Levitt said. “Those that were choosing to defer McKinley were worried about some of the financial implications of the remaining projects and potential overages, and thought that deferring McKinley allowed for more flexibility with funds that deferring Grant and Franklin would not.”

SMMUSD Chief Facilities Officer Carey Upton, speaking at the Monday meeting, said that prices were continuing to rise steadily at a rate of about one percent per month.

“We’ve been seeing escalation [of] about 1% a month,” Upton told the committee. “So, every month we delay — you know, every six months, every year — is money. And so, the sooner we get in, the sooner we get there.”

emily@smdp.com