SMMUSD is Burning Through Our Bond Money. Again.

By Esther Hickman, Opinion

Because SMMUSD plans to move forward with its wasteful Samohi Campus Plan, it stated that it doesn’t have enough money to complete the projects promised in its bond campaigns, and will need more bond measures. Ballot measures for school bonds failed for California and Palos Verdes in 2020. If SMMUSD doesn’t pause its fast-tracked new development at Samohi and study adaptive reuse, our elementary and middle schools could be left in disrepair.

SMMUSD has a track record of financial mismanagement. When the School Board chose demolition over a cheaper $7 million adaptive reuse plan, the cost of a new JAMS Auditorium was estimated at $19 million. It is now up to $44 million, 132% over budget. The Innovation building at Samohi that was supposed to cost $55 million is now up to $93 million, 69% over budget. These are just two of many examples of cost overruns buried in School Board agendas as change orders.

SMMUSD promised a master plan in 2006 that would modernize 16 campuses across the district for $1.2 billion. Since 2006, taxpayers have approved $1.138 billion in bond measures, based on SMMUSD’s promises to modernize all campuses. The remaining $270 million is hardly enough to finish the promised projects based on SMMUSD’s own projections. We can’t afford to prioritize expensive and unnecessary new construction over essential projects.

Contrary to SMMUSD propaganda, stakeholders aren’t trying to undermine SMMUSD’s educational efforts. We are asking that SMMUSD consider the financial, environmental, and educational benefits of studying adaptive reuse of the historical cluster of buildings at Samohi before they squander the remaining bond funds in one place and come back to the public ATM for another half a billion dollars or more.

And about the last School Board meeting. Since the Samohi Campus Plan wasn’t up for a vote, speaking at the meeting seemed redundant when over 5500 people had for months expressed opposition to the demolition of the History Building because adaptive reuse preserves our history, saves time and money, and is the most environmental option. Meanwhile, the Board called in favors to get speakers and only acknowledged the in-person comments (most of which expressed the need for upgrades) from this one meeting. The Board then falsely characterized the public comments as representative community support for demolition, when in fact the statements were a commentary on SMMUSD’s ongoing failure to update and maintain older buildings.

There is no evidence that students learn better in new development over adaptive reuse. No authority ever said that project-based learning requires new buildings. Superior learning institutions engage in adaptive reuse all over the world, all the time. Older buildings can be retrofitted and reconfigured into state-of-the-art, green conversions.

On the other hand, there is evidence that students need safe, comfortable and clean learning environments. Maybe SMMUSD could prioritize getting the bathroom count/conditions and HVAC (including air filtration systems) up to 21st century standards. This has been promised since 2006. We’d like them to stop wasting time and resources on unnecessary development and focus on getting campuses ready for students to return to school safely.

The biggest surprise of the evening was learning that our public education system in Santa Monica is promoting a throwaway society, an ignorance of what adaptive reuse is, a disregard for the environmental consequences of choosing demolition over rehabilitation, and a rejection of heritage education. Because SMMUSD was and remains unwilling to consider adaptive reuse for the History Building, it gave teachers, students, alumni and community members the false choice between an unrenovated History Building or a new building. They were forced to choose a culture of consumerism as their guiding light. According to SMMUSD, education can only be accomplished through new development, with demolition as the only solution. This is where imagination and possibility stopped, as if they had never witnessed a historic conversion. It seems that SMMUSD just wants new at any cost to taxpayers, the environment, and our society as an ethic.

It’s not too late for SMMUSD to shift direction, and do the right thing. If you think they should finish their capital improvements utilizing a less expensive adaptive reuse with the remaining bond funds, let them know, send them a letter, and make a public comment at the next School Board meeting on Feb 4.

Esther Hickman was a candidate for SMMUSD Board in the November 2020 election.


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