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Years after bond's passage, no start on new Sierra Madre school

The middle school, slated to benefit from a $350-million bond approved in 2008, has been operating out of trailers since the old campus' demolition in 2010.

January 22, 2013|By Joe Piasecki, Los Angeles Times

The summer before Kenna Castillo started sixth grade at Sierra Madre Middle School, education officials ordered demolition of the aging campus to make way for a brand-new school.

More than 2 1/2 years later, construction has yet to start, and Kenna is wrapping up eighth grade in a hodgepodge of trailers on a dirt lot.

On Tuesday, Pasadena Unified school board members ordered yet another delay for the rebirth of Sierra Madre Middle School after bids for the $22.5-million project came in nearly $9 million over budget.

That has Kenna's mom doubting that even her fifth-grade son will be able to enjoy the school her daughter was promised.

"I'm not holding my breath. For most of us working to get this school built, our kids aren't going to see it," said Melissa Castillo, an organizer and past president of Sierra Madre's PTA.

But school officials say construction will break ground later this year, after a new call for bids on a plan that incorporates cost-cutting design adjustments goes out to a wider pool of contractors in April. The initial request for proposals attracted just six bids from eight general contractors who were pre-qualified for major construction projects.

"We are totally committed to building this school," school board President Renatta Cooper said. "I'm sorry as can be that the middle school has taken so long to build, but we can't afford to spend more on it than it should cost. We have to be wise fiscal stewards."

Plans for the Sierra Madre campus include the construction of 22 classrooms, two science labs and a computer lab, as well as a new gym, library, cafeteria and parking area.

The renovation effort is one of 28 projects funded by the $350-million Measure TT school bond approved by voters in Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre in 2008.

Troubles at Sierra Madre Middle School began in July 2010 with demolition of the old campus before California's Division of the State Architect had issued approvals for new buildings.

Cooper said former Pasadena Unified supervisors had sold school board members on an early demolition under the pretense that they could save money by using workers already engaged in other district construction projects.

A year later, Pasadena officials were accusing the Division of the State Architect, which must sign off on all public school construction plans, of dragging out the approval process.

The agency countered that state workers were waiting on Pasadena to submit design changes needed to meet regulations. Local officials denied that any design changes were needed at that time.

Plans for the campus weren't approved until fall 2012, school district Chief Finance Officer John Pappalardo said.

Pappalardo took charge of Measure TT projects last month after board members placed the district's chief facilities officer on leave and suspended a pact with a contractor overseeing some work pending an investigation into the use of bond funds.

Officials have declined to specify the nature of the investigation, which is ongoing.

Staff upheaval and budget reductions for most bond-funded projects, meanwhile, have some Sierra Madre parents accusing officials of delaying construction until they can cancel the project by claiming lack of funds.

That's what happened to Blair Middle School, which the school district demolished in 2005 and failed to rebuild before exhausting a $240-million bond approved in 1997. The new Blair campus was built later using Measure TT proceeds.

Pappalardo said about $111 million has been spent on or committed to school renovations under the current bond program, with some $274 million in Measure TT proceeds and other construction funding still left in the pipeline.

joe.piasecki@latimes.com

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