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Oxnard's School Plans Looking Up

Tight on space but long on students, the elementary district joins others in the state for which expansion hinges on multistory buildings.

May 11, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

Faced with an influx of new students and a shortage of available land, the Oxnard Elementary School District has joined a growing number of elementary school systems across the state in deciding to build up rather than out.

Oxnard plans to construct two-story buildings on seven of its campuses beginning later this year. The structures will replace clusters of aging, portable classrooms that take up playground space at the most crowded schools.

Facilities director Sal Godoy said the district, already on a year-round schedule because of lack of space, had little choice.

Finding a tract large enough to accommodate a new school in Oxnard, which is hemmed in by the ocean on one side and protected farmland on the other, is getting more difficult. A creative and affordable solution was needed for Ventura County's largest city, which is also among its fastest-growing.

"Our concerns were with smart growth -- we can't go out and start encroaching on all the open space," Godoy said. "It's just thinking outside the box."

With land increasingly scarce and costly throughout the state, building up is an approach that an increasing number of cramped school districts are taking, from Santa Ana to San Jose.

Common on the East Coast, multistory elementary schools are still outside the norm in sprawling California. But not for long, say state education officials. In fact, recent state legislation offers additional funds for districts that build double-decker schools.

"Reconfiguring single-story campuses in built-out areas will be something districts, if they're not looking at it now, will be forced to look at in the future," said Jim Bush, assistant director of school facilities planning for the state Department of Education. "California is rapidly running out of good spots to put schools."

In Oxnard, school board members recently approved seeking additional funds for an ambitious plan to convert 85 portable classrooms to permanent, two-story buildings.

The $80-million project would create 55 new classrooms, the equivalent of two additional schools. First on the list is Cesar Chavez Elementary School, one of the district's oldest campuses, in the heart of Oxnard's Colonia neighborhood. Using $11 million in school construction money reimbursed by the state, Godoy said, the district will begin repair projects at 11 schools and the portable conversion at Chavez.

Nearly two dozen of the boxy classrooms at Chavez take up much of the school's playground and are run-down from decades of year-round use. Construction should begin late this year or early next year, officials said.

"We're trying to make the best use of the land," said Supt. Richard Duarte. "We don't feel portables are the best use."

The idea, which the district calls the "portables-to-permanent" project, came from Godoy and Thousand Oaks-based Martinez Architects. Norberto Martinez, company president, said every district he works with has trouble finding an affordable piece of land, so he wanted to devise a solution.

Martinez designed a project similar to Oxnard's for the cramped Santa Ana Unified School District in Orange County and is working with school officials in Inglewood, he said.

Although the building design is simple, the construction process can be difficult, Martinez said. Particularly tricky is finding space for youngsters while the new structure goes up. State law prohibits students in kindergarten and first grade from being housed above ground level.

Still, districts that have built multistory schools say the hassle is worth it.

In Northern California, San Jose Unified School District opened its first two-story elementary school downtown last year and is building a three-story school, officials said.

For about five years, the district has been building two-story additions to elementary schools. Although multistory structures are more costly at face value, the projects are now actually cheaper than building new schools, given the price of land in Silicon Valley, said Chuck Corr, director of facilities and construction.

Districts also save money in the long run because most of them lease portables from the state for about $4,000 a year.

"It would have been significantly more expensive if we had to condemn property and buy it," Corr said.

A bill passed two years ago provides supplemental funds for multistory school projects but includes a long list of conditions. In fact, only one system -- Hawthorne School District in Los Angeles County -- has taken advantage of the incentive program so far, according to the state architect's office.

Now, Godoy said, he and other school facilities officials are lobbying for a new Assembly bill that would make applying for the grants less cumbersome. He hopes the legislation, combined with state money for overcrowded schools, would help provide funding to complete the six other two-story add-ons in his district.

Oxnard has struggled to provide adequate classroom space for the city's booming population for decades. The city added 3,000 new residents last year, to reach a population of 182,000.

But the problem has worsened in recent years with the passage of slow-growth laws that restrict building on agricultural land, Duarte said. The district also must work around Oxnard Airport flight paths.

According to Martinez, the problem is simple: "There's not enough land, and too many people here."

The portables-to-permanent concept works, he said, because students will get a nicer, more spacious learning environment on a smaller building footprint.

"It's a new era for school construction," Martinez said.

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