|It was an exercise in frustration for Palo Alto resident Spencer Commons to look out his windows and watch construction being carried out at El Carmelo Elementary School in 2001.
The concrete foundation for portable classrooms had to be re-poured several times, among other problems, leading residents to complain repeatedly to the district about mismanagement of the project, he said.
"It was just a nightmare of ineptitude and stupid decisions," he said.
El Carmelo's construction was carried out with funds from 1995's $143 million bond Measure B, also dubbed the "B4E" or "Building for Excellence" campaign.
The measure taxes $44.50 per $100,000 property value and will continue until 2024.
The money, which has already been spent, went to renovating Palo Alto's aging schools, many of which hadn't been upgraded in decades.
But the building campaign was plagued by a slow start -- only $14.2 million had been spent by 1999 -- and rising costs.
The district-wide construction was scheduled to end in 1998 but has stretched to present day.
Disagreements about mismanagement further hampered the work.
The Palo Alto Unified School District eventually ordered the construction company D.J. Amoroso off of El Carmelo and Barron Park elementary school sites and entered into litigation, reaching a settlement in 2005.
Yet despite Measure B's setbacks, Commons said he would vote for another bond measure without hesitation.
"We need this for our schools. That's kind of a no-brainer," he said.
The school district is hoping many voters feel the same as it prepares to put a $378 million, nearly 20-year bond measure on the June ballot. The measure would extend Measure B's tax by 20 years, until 2042, without increasing it.
The money is desperately needed to modernize and expand schools facing a ballooning number of students and increasingly decrepit conditions, officials say.
The school board will vote on whether to approve the measure Tuesday.
School officials interviewed by the Weekly this month said most of Measure B's mishaps came during an initial, troubled phase from which the district learned.
Now the district can oversee construction better with dedicated staff rather than outside consultants, they said. The contracting procedure for construction has also changed, they said.
The unexpected disappointments that marred the last measure -- including plans for a state-of-the-art facility for JLS Middle School later dropped due to expense -- will be avoided because there is a precise list of what is to be done, they said.
The cost of inflation is built into estimates, as are maintenance costs.
And they defended the last measure, saying it accomplished direly needed repairs.
Basic amenities such as plumbing and wiring were replaced at run-down schools last repaired under a 1967 bond measure, they said. Some schools received new libraries and renovated administration offices.
"For all its problems, good things came out of the last bond and we're going to do an even better job this time," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.
VISITORS TO CERTAIN BOYS' bathrooms in Palo Alto schools in 1995 would have discovered something missing: stall doors.
Worn down by decades of use, doors had broken so many times they were finally removed, according to former teacher and school board president John Tuomy.
It wasn't just bathrooms. Cracked asphalt, leaky roofs and overloaded electrical systems, among other features, cried out for renovation, he said.
Many of the district's schools hadn't been renovated since the late 1960s or early 1970s.
And the aging schools were not just broken -- they were broke.
Money had been slowly drying up since 1978, when passage of state Proposition 13 severely restricted the amount of money California cities could collect in property taxes, Tuomy said, echoing a complaint of educators statewide.
Despite obvious poor conditions, school officials in 1995 were uncertain they could pass a bond measure in a tax-hostile California climate in which other districts had failed, he said.
"People were not passing bond measures," he said.
Tuomy co-chaired the $143 million bond Measure B campaign. Hundreds of people fanned out through local neighborhoods, going door-to-door to explain the measure's importance.
More than 80 percent of voters approved it in June 1995.
Money was spent mainly on two areas: repairing infrastructure and adding more classrooms, according to school community members and a 2006 summary prepared by the district, the School Site Status Report.
Basic needs such as removing asbestos, re-roofing and making schools wheelchair-accessible were met. Schools' libraries were renovated -- or built from scratch where necessary.
New permanent and portable classrooms were also built to house both growing numbers of students and classes.
Palo Alto needed more classrooms partially because, like districts across the state, it enrolled in the 1996 Class Size Reduction program.
The program offered state money to pay for more teachers so districts could reduce classes to 20 students in kindergarten through third grade.
By 2005, bigger, spruced-up schools had been rescued from ramshackle conditions.
But all the work wasn't enough, not by a long shot, school officials said.
"We didn't have enough money to do all that was needed," then-Superintendent Don Phillips said this month.
The total cost to completely modernize schools would have been more than $200 million, said Tuomy, who co-chaired the Committee for 21st Century Schools, a group that met with community members from 1992-1994 and ultimately issued cost estimates to the district.
The district chose $143 million, close to the middle estimate, because it feared voters wouldn't pass a more expensive bond measure, he said.
The 2006 status report lists what was done at each school and what remains uncompleted.
About $28 million was spent at Palo Alto High School to renovate classrooms and re-paint and re-roof some buildings, but the historic 1918 Tower Building still needs a new roof, paint, windows and doors, according to the report.
The report states $89 million more is needed to completely renovate Paly's campus, some of it built as early as 1918.
The cost of future repairs outweighs funds already spent in the vast majority of Palo Alto schools, according to the report.
Looking ahead, the total needed is $772 million, which could be spent over the next 20 years, according to a Facilities Master Plan written in spring 2007.
The district wants to start now.
Next week the school board will vote on whether to place a $378 million bond measure on the June 3 ballot.
As with the last bond measure, the district is only asking for part of what it needs to accomplish the facility plan's recommendations, and may bring another bond measure to the public at a later, unspecified date, Chief Building Official Bob Golton said.
This measure would extend the current $44.50 tax per $100,000 of property value established by Measure B until about 2042 -- or earlier depending on how quickly property values rise. Bonds would be issued in three series in August 2008, 2012 and 2016.
It needs 55 percent of the vote to pass, about 11 percent less than Measure B, under a 2000 statute, Proposition 39, that lowers approval needed under the conditions that districts describe what will be done and that a citizens' oversight committee supervises future work.
The bond money won't just spruce up schools -- it will also expand them at a time of increasing enrollment, district officials say.
The district is already scrambling to find space for growing numbers of students, including the 235 more who arrived this year -- about half the size of an elementary school.
The district switched a music classroom and other multi-purpose spaces to classrooms to try to pack in students this year, but about 1,500 more will arrive in the next five years, according to projections prepared by demographers Lapkoff and Gobalet.
And those figures don't count families who will live in housing not yet built, including the 3,505 units the Association of Bay Area Governments has asked Palo Alto and Stanford University zone for.
The bond measure's proposed ballot statement -- to voted on by the board Tuesday -- vows to meet the student surge.
The bond measure would also fund two separate technology upgrades and convert schools to sustainable energy, saving the district money on operating costs, Golton said.
YET SOME ARE SKEPTICAL of the proposed bond measure, in part because of mistakes made under the last.
Local resident Wayne Martin, who led a campaign against 2005's Measure A school parcel tax, has criticized the district as fiscally irresponsible. The district handled Measure B especially badly, he said.
"The administration of the Measure B bonds in the early years of the building program was a disgrace. It was clear that no one at the PAUSD [Palo Alto Unified School District] had the slighted idea how to administer a program like that," he said.
Unqualified staff tried to direct a massive building program, he said. He heard "horror story after horror story" from teachers concerned with the slow, fumbling pace of construction, he said.
He will not vote for the upcoming bond measure, he said.
Martin's anti-tax view aside, his memory points to the bond measure's troubled beginning, which was fraught with false starts and community frustration.
The roots of frustration reached back the Committee for 21st Century Schools, whose meetings encouraged residents to draw up wish lists, Tuomy said.
While the committee's final 1994 report acknowledged most ideas were unrealistic even with future bond-measure funding, high expectations had already been drummed up in residents, he said.
"It was a big mistake. I learned from that. I don't think I'd ever ask people to try to be that creative again," he said.
The cycle of inflated expectations continued after the bond measure was passed in 1995, according to Measure B campaign volunteer and later school board member Mandy Lowell.
To plan how to spend the money, Program Manager Kathleen Wood organized somewhat pointless community meetings, Lowell said.
Wood encouraged people to imagine what they would want for schools without telling them how much money was available, she said.
"The first part of the bond measure there was a little bit of dreaming," she said.
The meetings bore little resemblance to the reality of basic repairs for which bond money was needed, she said.
Meanwhile, the district hired architectural consultants to visit schools and form a list of likely projects. Residents were disappointed when resultant plans didn't match the visions of sleek, modern sites they'd been ask to conjure up, Lowell said.
In 1996, Wood announced plans to rebuild four schools, including a new state-of-the-art, two-story structure to replace JLS Middle School.
But nearby residents protested plans for a new JLS, claiming the structure would loom too close to houses. The planning process dragged on, and the costs kept rising, due construction inflation, according to school officials.
In spring 1997, nearly two years after the measure passed, new Superintendent Don Phillips arrived to a district of ballooning cost estimates and skeptical residents still waiting to see ground broken at schools.
Phillips began making changes.
He ordered a financial audit of the project that revealed it was over-budget and asked the school board to cancel plans for a new JLS, which it did.
He also decided to revamp the entire approach to construction. Rather than work on plans on a site-by-site basis, he came up with a set of basic quality standards all schools needed to meet, he said.
Wood resigned shortly after Phillips' arrival, triggering speculation she had been asked to leave. Wood said she left to take an attractive position with a San Francisco company.
Phillips' former colleague from the Mountain View/Los Altos Union High School District, Bob Golton, came to Palo Alto as a chief business official in fall of 1997 and helped him re-organize.
Phillips' and Golton's changes transformed the stalled, stumbling project, according to many in the school community, including Lowell and Tuomy.
The process began to work better, they said.
Phillips and Golton worked with management company Vanir Construction Management to come up with a new plan master plan in fall 1997.
With new managers and a new plan, construction kicked into gear, running from 1998 to now. While bond funds have been spent, some of the $27 million in state matching funds remain, Golton said.
The massive district-wide upgrade did not proceed without problems -- or financial loss -- even after Phillips and Golton arrived, however.
Construction company D.J. Amoroso performed such shoddy work at El Carmelo and Barron Park elementary schools that the district ordered it off the sites in 2000 and entered into litigation for the remaining costs.
The district ultimately kept about $2.8 million out of the $10.2 million contract with the firm, but paid them $845,000 after settling litigation in 2005, Golton said.
The total money loss from the early, confused years of planning and abandoned JLS plans is unclear.
Golton, who arrived at the district after new-JLS plans were scrapped, helped the Weekly reconstruct some of the cost by digging out old receipts and contracts, but said he couldn't find documentation summarizing the costs.
According to a 1996 contract with international architectural firm Perkins and Will, the district agreed to pay about $1.06 million for work on JLS, of which 35 percent, or about $373,000, was to cover design costs.
Yet in January 1998 -- just after Phillips developed a new master plan -- the district terminated its contract with Perkins and Will, according to a 1999 legal settlement.
Then the district, Perkins and Will, and a subconsultant hired by Perkins and Will, Campbell-based engineering firm Transmetrics, asserted claims against each other.
All parties entered into arbitration to settle the claims, reaching two settlements, according to documents from the Oakland-based law offices of Wulfsberg Reese Ferris & Sykes.
Perkins and Will agreed to pay the district $225,000, while the district agreed to pay Transmetrics $60,000, according to the 1999 settlements.
Lowell said she recalled hearing that "less than a million" was spent on Wood and other consultants to prepare ultimately discarded plans during the first 18 months of planning.
"It wasn't so much financial cost that was lost, it was time and energy," she said.
THE DISTRICT HAS PROMISED to get things right this time around.
It now has qualified staff to manage the project in-house instead of bringing in outside consultants, Golton said.
He cited Facilities Manager Ron Smith and Maintenance, Operations and Construction Manager Pete Pearne, whose positions didn't exist when the last bond measure passed, he said.
"We own the job," he said.
Instead of working with a construction manager and then having different builders at each site -- as happened with manager Vanir and individual builder D.J. Amoroso -- the district is working with one firm that plays the dual role of construction manager and general contractor, O'Connor Construction Management, he said.
The new construction set-up will better keep costs in check, according to City Council member and former school board member John Barton, who served on the Planning Review Committee that provided feedback to district staff about Measure B construction.
In the new system, the manager-contractor has a responsibility to keep costs near their own initial estimate, he said.
The earlier process forced the district to accept the lowest bidder for construction work at individual sites. Builders could later claim unforeseen circumstances and amp up the costs, he said.
And teamwork makes a big difference, Golton said.
O'Connor liaison Tom Hodges has offered commitment and expertise since the district dismissed Vanir in 2001, he said. Hodges sat in a suit and tie alongside Golton at school-board discussions of the bond measure in the last few months, ready to answer questions. Smith and Pearne sat nearby, rounding out the team.
Yet more consultants will be needed if the bond measure passes in June, Skelly said.
Every last detail must be planned to meet state regulations, a painstaking process school officials aren't qualified for, he said.
An example of close state supervision would be when the district pours concrete for a new pool at Gunn High School, he said.
"There's a [regulatory] guy standing there taking samples straight out of ... the cement truck. And if that cement doesn't meet standards, back it goes," he said.
Golton said those who help with the project will be carefully screened.
"My bent is to very heavily pre-qualify contractors and architects and the like. You want to be really super careful about who you pick. This is the biggest thing you do," he said.
Another factor that will be different this time around is the cost, officials promise.
Cost estimates have inflation built in and are unlikely to rise astronomically like last time, Skelly said.
"This time, we've built in better inflation numbers into our projects. We have the past 12 years as our measure. In 1995, we didn't have much," he said.
Yet some projects may still get cancelled if inflation rises too high, he cautioned.
This isn't Skelly's first time working with bond measures. He was principal of Saratoga High School in 1998 when voters in the Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District passed a $79 million bond measure. He was involved in nearly every decision of how money was spent in the small district, he said.
And he knows not to "over-promise" what this bond measure can do, he said.
People were disappointed by the last bond measure because they had been promised much more than it could accomplish, he said.
This bond measure only promises what it can do, he said.
And it has to -- under state Proposition 39, the district must describe what it aims to accomplish, taking much of the last bond measure's time-consuming planning and guesswork out of the equation.
Golton, Smith and Pearne met administrators from all schools last fall to draw up precise lists of proposed projects.
The district is poised to begin construction soon after the measure passes, Smith said at a recent school board meeting.
He was responding to Board member Camille Townsend, who said many people remember Measure B's sluggish start and asked if the district could "hit the ground running."
It can, Smith said.
Construction on Gunn's new pool will begin in June, and about $30 million in projects will be completed each year if the measure passes, Golton said.
• At a glance
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