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Costs Threaten School Building Plans

Santa Ana Unified's construction campaign is $100 million over budget. Some wonder if bonds passed in 1999 can fund promised projects.

November 16, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana Unified School District's long-promised campus building campaign is running $100 million over budget, raising questions about whether officials can make good on promises to voters.

The first 13 projects on the district's list of improvements are now expected to cost $289 million, rather than the $181 million projected three years ago.

Other modernization, expansion and new-school projects, promised when voters passed a 1999 construction bond measure, are languishing for lack of funds.

Some officials say they did not expect costs would rise as they have.

"Perhaps people were overly optimistic," said district spokeswoman Lucy Araujo-Cook. "We have had to put pencil back to paper. We are trying to avoid a crisis of confidence."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Aliso Viejo school -- A report in the California section of Sunday's Orange County edition about school construction costs incorrectly identified Canyon Vista Elementary School in Aliso Viejo as a high school.

District officials say statewide increases in real estate and construction costs are partly responsible. They also have blamed the budget disarray on a construction management company hired in 2000 to oversee the building campaign.

Confronted with growing construction delays and steadily increasing costs, the school board voted in February to fire Del Terra Construction Group of Los Angeles alleging "gross mismanagement," and sued the company. Del Terra officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The company's construction budget figures "run all over the map," said Margie Brown, the district's facilities planning director. "We still need to ... determine who did what when."

In August, the school board hired Capital Program Management of Sacramento to analyze the district's construction program. The consultant, which will be paid as much as $766,000, will present its initial analysis at a special school board meeting on Monday.

Among the district's challenges is determining how many of the 1999 building promises can be salvaged, and at what cost.

When the 1999 bond was put before voters, the district planned to build two high schools and 11 elementary schools, expand two schools and modernize or expand an unspecified number of others.

Since then, work has begun on three new schools -- Segerstrom High School, Manuel Esqueda Elementary School and Hector Godines Fundamental High School -- and 10 existing campuses where improvements or additions are planned.

The $145 million in bond revenue was to be supplemented with $185 million in state construction funds, totaling $330 million in construction work. But the cost of that work is now estimated at $420 million, Brown said last week.

Further straining the situation, the district used more than $15 million intended for school construction to balance its budget this year. The money is supposed to be returned to the fund by 2005.

In the county's most overcrowded school district, some trustees and parents wonder how construction of other schools will be funded and whether the district will need to ask voters to approve another bond measure.

"The district has been off [in its cost estimates] since Day One," said John Palacio, a school board member often critical of Supt. Al Mijares and his administration.

Other school board members, however, blame an alliance among Palacio, Nativo Lopez, who was recalled from the board in February, and former board member Nadia Davis for delaying approval of construction projects, resulting in rising costs. Critics of the alliance said the trustees usurped the role of district administrators by directing Del Terra Construction themselves.

Even so, trustee Audrey Yamagata-Noji agrees with her board adversary, Palacio, that construction priorities are confused. "I really want to get a handle on that," she said.

At least one former district employee raised concerns more than 18 months ago. Diane Schwartz, a district architect at the time, wrote in an e-mail to a facilities planner in April 2002 that the $145-million bond measure was insufficient to fund the district's construction wish-list. A copy of the message was obtained by The Times.

She warned that "the public and board" needed to be advised that the bond measure would pay for only two high schools at most.

There is no indication that the district heeded the warning.

Those who have joined the board since then share concern about the construction budget. Noji returned to the board in November and Rob Richardson replaced Lopez in February.

"There is no question that costs have gone up.... We need to complete the full assessment of what funds the district has available, what has been spent and to prioritize the projects within the funds we have available," said Richardson. Brown, the facilities planning director, said that despite the cost concerns, Santa Ana is finally on the brink of completing much-needed expansions and construction.

Some building triggered by the 1999 bond measure began last December, but most was launched this year.

"The building program is back on track," she said. "We have $172 million of construction going on. It's phenomenal."

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