Between crafting COVID-era return-to-school plans, fine-tuning Distance Learning, developing major district-wide campus improvements, giving fair process to the Santa Monica High School History Building (slated to be bulldozed this summer along with the cafeteria, main administrative building, a gym, and a wide swath of mature trees and greenspace), and appointing a new member to fill the SMMUSD School Board vacancy, our School Board has a lot on its plate.
And our newly-elected City Councilmembers, Phil Brock, Christine Parra, and Oscar de la Torre, have full plates too, arriving in office aware that “change” is needed in Council’s approach to local governance. So they recently joined Mayor Sue Himmelrich to reject the “build, baby, build” Council m.o. of the past decade, ending negotiations with the proposed developer of the City’s land at 4th/5th & Arizona. In contrast, our SMMUSD School District leadership remained in place post-election, and Board Members appear still to be processing the message from voters that local over-development and over-building is less in favor.
By passing three large school district facilities bond measures (BB, ES, SMS) since 2006, Santa Monicans have shown strong support for significantly renovated or new learning spaces for our students along with great infrastructure for technology. For the amount of public money that’s being handed over to the District, we’d expect to see elementary school classroom buildings thoughtfully brought up to snuff to last another almost-100 years.
But instead, in December District Staff asked the School Board to approve an almost $100 million first round of random, smaller construction projects on district elementary and middle school campuses, with no Board-approved individual campus plans or a district-wide facilities improvements Master Plan in place. Implementation of these projects would spend down the remaining unallocated $100 million out of the original $485 million SMS school district facilities bond measure passed by Santa Monica voters in 2018 and tee up another bond ask by the District in 2022. The projects list was drawn from campus plans developed quietly over the past year by district staff, in a process dubbed “Campus Assessments”, and which alarmingly feature significant new construction on every campus and reduction of many large open spaces.
Our City is park-poor, so Santa Monicans have a vested interest in keeping school campus open space relatively unchanged, as the public has used these spaces for decades as our de facto neighborhood parks. With a majority of residents living in multi-family housing, these school campus playgrounds are where babies take their first shaky steps, and older children learn how to throw balls and ride trikes; to climb on jungle gyms, play handball and tetherball, shoot baskets and kick soccer balls.
“Our City is park-poor, so Santa Monicans have a vested interest in keeping school campus open space relatively unchanged, as the public has used these spaces for decades as our de facto neighborhood parks.”Ann Hoover, guest columnist for SMa.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
A driver of these informal campus plan designs apparently is the au courant Project Based Learning (PBL) model of instruction, which the Superintendent and School Board have been moving District education towards for several years. PBL allegedly requires much larger classroom spaces for team teaching and group learning. But it seems to have produced a serious intent in the proposed plans to overbuild each campus despite some declining enrollment. PBL also was cited by District Staff as a main reason for the planned demolition of the History Building at SAMOHI, despite the fact that it’s unclear yet whether PBL will become a truly enduring, effective, and dominant model of educational instruction.
This building to facilitate PBL also potentially decimates other historic campus resources and fails to consider the community’s long-term and customary reliance on these spaces as our parks. These decades of public use are formally and legally recognized in the City’s joint use agreements and Playground Partnership with the District, which allow the City to offer school fields and open spaces to the public for recreational use during non-school hours. The District has both a legal and a moral obligation to preserve these spaces for customary public use & to not allow over-development on the sites to materially reduce them.
As the City inevitably densifies over the years, balancing the needs of PBL building to enhance student learning against keeping these spaces “undeveloped” for student health and community use is a must.
Interestingly, while PBL is the main guiding principle, the projects list prioritized preschool building more than almost anything else, including a $2.3 million Pre-K/Kindergarten Consolidation at Grant, a $16.4 million new Pre-K/T-K/Kindergarten building at Roosevelt, and a $23 million new one-story Early Education/Kindergarten Classroom Building and field / playground updates at Will Rogers. McKinley would get a $29.4 million new Classroom and School Support building, while Franklin would get a $7 million “makerspace”. Why all the preschools?
And what is a “makerspace”? Apparently “makerspaces” are spaces where students can build things. “Makerspace” activities do already occur in many traditional elementary school classrooms. Teacher/author John Spencer, who is a creativity and makerspace expert, explains that a “…..makerspace can take the form of [just] a mobile cart that can be shared between classrooms….” Hmmm.
The projects list and collection of campus plans debuted for the first time at the School Board’s December 9th meeting, with the list scheduled to be approved as a Consent Item (as in, without discussion) by the Board on December 17th. That’s right, folks – $100 million of your tax dollars as a Consent Item. Due to an extended return-to-school plans discussion, the Board ended up postponing its consideration of the projects list until the new year.
Has the District’s planning process taken a wrong turn? This query does not seek to undermine the PBL learning approach, which aims to engage students not necessarily served by traditional education. That’s a good thing. But it’s fair to ask the District whether our campuses can adequately serve the PBL model without extreme over-building.
Several district parents and local leaders have asked the School Board to press “pause” on any further action to get significantly more community input and address concerns of historic resource preservation, large built-space footprints, the role of preschools, and potential loss of open and recreation space. Approval of the proposed projects list by the School Board before this occurs and without formally approved plans or a Master Plan would set a bad precedent and legitimize projects and plans the public hasn’t even seen yet.
“Several district parents and local leaders have asked the School Board to press “pause” on any further action to get significantly more community input and address concerns of historic resource preservation, large built-space footprints, the role of preschools, and potential loss of open and recreation space”Ann Hoover
The Board also is being asked to prioritize sustainability issues such as adaptive reuse of existing buildings, where possible, versus wholesale new construction, to quantify projected utility and maintenance costs and staffing needs for large, expensive new buildings (with any increased costs straining annual operating resources), and to compile a facilities improvements projects Master Plan and an implementation plan to manage impacts to elementary and middle school communities during what may be many years of construction on every campus.
To its credit, the Board appears to be listening to the public feedback and observers hope it will table the projects list for now and put these issues onto its upcoming meeting agendas for close study and public discussion. Although the School Board’s January 14th meeting agenda is not published as of this writing, it’s rumored that the Board will consider historic preservation issues next week.
To fairly balance student learning needs against the costs to Santa Monicans of years of new construction and the public’s need to still access and use campus open spaces, fields, black tops, and play equipment for recreation, the Board must facilitate a very public, noticed, considered, methodical, & transparent process going forward. With public money and years of construction on the line, it’s important to get this right.
And regarding the appointment of its new member, the Board also is getting vocal feedback on the imperative to respect voters’ wishes and appoint Jason Feldman to the Board vacancy. His standing for the position includes (1) that he was the 4th highest vote getter after election winners Jon Kean, Maria Leon-Vazquez and Jennifer Smith; (2) he is a civil rights attorney bringing valuable legal expertise to the Board; and (3) he has children at SMMUSD schools, one of whom has special needs as do over 13% of students in the District, many of whom are students of color. Feldman would be able to represent many different students’ perspectives on the Board. No other potential appointee brings this set of credentials to the table.
So please keep an eye on the January and February School Board agendas for opportunities to speak up or write to the Board regarding school campus development issues. The vacancy appointment will be made at the January 14th School Board meeting. Be sure to tune in.
By Ann Hoover, guest columnist for SMa.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner,
Marc Verville CPA Inactive
For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing
Ann Hoover is a former attorney and served as a PTA Co-President at Franklin Elementary School. She was a member of the SMMUSD Facilities District Advisory Committee from Spring 2016 until this past November.
The proposed long range campus plans can be viewed here: