Last Spring, shortly before the coronavirus outbreak shut down our schools and altered the fabric of our lives, Mountain View voters approved Measure T, a $259M bond supporting near-term school facility improvements, teacher housing, and refinancing of the debt the district issued for construction work at Vargas, Stevenson, and the District Office, after Measure G funds ran out. I was part of the campaign team, gathering support and walking precincts to get our message out. It passed with 70% of the vote, a great result at a time when other bond measures in the state were not succeeding. Delivering on the promises of Measure T is a key goal of mine if elected to the MVWSD Board of Trustees. In this blog I'd like to share the details of my philosophy on school facilities, and why it is so important to have a school board that is capable of delivering outstanding school facilities to our community.
First, some background: After writing an opinion piece to advocate for the construction of performing arts auditoriums at Crittenden and Graham Middle Schools, I served on the MVWSD Board Facilities Committee and District Facilities Committee over a 3-year span. I gave input that guided many of the new facility designs you see at our schools today, took plans to our local neighborhood association and PTAs for feedback, and presented our recommendations to the MVWSD Board. Later, as School Site Council Chair and parent with kids at Monta Loma Elementary, I was closely involved with the design and construction progress at our neighborhood school - including our challenges with DSA review at the State level - and stood up for our community when district boundary discussions threatened the stability of our neighborhood school. In my professional career, I've been involved in the design and bidding of numerous construction projects, commercial facilities improvements, and capital equipment purchases. When it came time to remodel our home, I took the opportunity to engage with local construction experts to gain perspective on the current state of contracting and subcontracting for construction work in Mountain View, and better understand how contractors see the current environment. More recently, I closely followed the saga of providing electricity to Vargas Elementary.
All this experience has been invaluable in understanding what works... and what doesn't work... when it comes to school facilities. Equity matters. Hold all schools to a consistent facilities standard. Communicate early and often. Engage the community in ways that allow rapid, iterative input on projects. Think about how facilities decisions impact students, staff, and the broader community. Engage experts that understand contingencies and historical issues at each of our sites. Understand the critical path in the schedule, and manage it closely. And much, much more.
Looking forward, the MVWSD Board has already made decisions on facilities priorities which informed what we took to voters as part of Measure T. This was a huge step forward in governance. Measure G had some great benefits for our schools, but the Board at that time supported about $400M in School Facilities Improvement Plan (SFIP) priorities on the back of a $200M bond - leaving the real argument about priorities to take place after the bond was approved. Delays in Measure G decisions were costing the District about $220,000 a week in time-value-of-money, since construction costs were rising about 8% a year at that time - I still believe that if the Board had acted quickly and set up an agile framework to align on priorities, MVWSD would not have had to borrow additional funds to complete the task at Stevenson, replace the District Offices, and build Vargas Elementary. If the next Board decides to renegotiate the scope of work for Measure T, I am concerned that we will repeat that mistake. I'm more inclined to suggest "70% of voters liked the plan... how about we stick with it?" and get the work done.
That said, there's a whole lot that happens after we all vote to approve a few words describing facilities priorities. Measure G showed us that details matter. Here's one example: part of the scope at Crittenden included replacement of the library building with a new Innovation Center. But where should we put it? The library stood in the middle of the campus, a tough building for anyone to avoid. Many concepts were reviewed; the one that stood out to me, and which I advocated for strongly, was one which created an open quad area in the middle of the Crittenden campus. Not only was it beautiful, but it also allowed for clear lines of sight for teachers and staff to spot any bad behavior, and this was a particular area of concern we were hearing from folks familiar with Crittenden at the time. The lesson is clear: understand the facts on the ground and drive design decisions based on that. Get community input. The result can be fantastic. Years later, I spoke at a Board meeting to advocate for the same level of design review detail on the Measure T work, because someone had floated a design drawing that put solar panels in the middle of that wonderful quad - the ask was acknowledged, and I was relieved to see an improved location for the solar panels when this came to our Crittenden School Site Council for input. The Board needs to ensure MVWSD follows this process for the rest of the Measure T work and if elected, I plan to see to that. We can get so much more out of our investment that way.
Details also matter so we can avoid potentially costly mistakes: there are smart ways to secure our schools, and then there are ways that fundamentally alter the relationship between schools and the neighborhood; simple decisions like the location of a fence can have a huge negative impact. New buildings can come in with features that are an architects' dream vs. what we actually need, or complex controls that no one seems to be able to use. Do-overs are costly; and let's remember that the window to get big things done on schools with minimal disruption is basically 8 weeks during the summer - so if we miss a DSA approval window and can't get a project bid out in time to hit the summer window, it's a year delay... that's not just a cost impact, it's a school year's worth of missed opportunity for the students.
Eventually, the mountain of projects and capacity improvements at our schools will be in the hands of contractors to execute. We'll be looking forward to having teachers move in to new affordable housing in Mountain View. And we'll have reinvested the savings we got from refinancing district debt and reducing energy costs into things like teacher salaries and our efforts to close the achievement gap. What's next? This gets even more fun - we get to work on the long-term growth needs for Mountain View schools. As I've engaged in school enrollment, capacity, and boundary discussions over the years, I've been able to reapply my professional experience in strategy and capacity planning to the problem of school growth - and I'm super excited to work on the 50-year decisions in front of us: where will we put a 3rd middle school? Where will the next two elementary schools go? Are there synergies with what the high school district needs? How will x-factors like COVID-19 and the re-evaluation of employee colocation affect demand for public schools? And if MVWSD knocks it out of the ballpark with respect to delivering quality education, how might we handle the onslaught of families who will now choose free Mountain View public schools instead of private school alternatives? That's what's next. Fun problems to solve. A school board that can provide the right facilities guidance and oversight to ensure we succeed.