Before the Santa Clara Unified School District community can sign off for the February break, the Board of Trustees had to once again review the Laurelwood Elementary School project.
Laurelwood Elementary School
Inflation is running amok in every aspect of our lives and Santa Clara Unified is not safe nor are their plans for Laurelwood Elementary School. On Feb. 9, Chief Business Official Mark Schiel explained that they’re dealing with unprecedented cost escalation of 24%, new energy code requirements, and an expanded scope of the project. All that combined has skyrocketed the new Laurelwood school outside of the approved budget. The first iteration of this plan was slated for $98.8 million but then the Board upped it to $148.8 million, but in today’s world that same project is estimated to be $187.2 million.
The project would use Measure BB bond money which can only be used for construction projects and modernizations, but it is money all the schools have to share. And their construction cost woes are not unique to Laurelwood. All their projects are likely to see a steep increase in cost.
Budget concerns were the main obstacle here, said Schiel, with a secondary issue and elephant in the room being declining enrollment. The irony is that Laurelwood was originally promised a new school because they were overpacked and enrollment was expected to keep going up.
The Laurelwood community has been advocating for a new school for years with talks dating back to 2014. Back in May 2019, The Board approved a new Laurelwood school at the Patrick Henry site big enough for 800 students to open in August 2022. At the time, Laurelwood was over capacity since the school was only built to accommodate 400 students and had portables to keep up. Staff had estimated that by 2024, Laurelwood would be serving 750 children.
In April 2021, they faced significant delays at the state level and learned that enrollment numbers were trending down, not up. In 2021, it was looking like enrollment wouldn’t grow past 650. However, they decided to stay on the path and continue with the 800-capacity school.
Now, here we are again. Same problem, different year. Today, Laurelwood has 531 students including the new TK class. The District is struggling on many enrollment fronts, they’re seeing a decline in kindergarten enrollment District-wide. It doesn’t look like more kids are on the way since they’re seeing declining birth rates. Also, no new housing projects that will produce more families are in the works for the Laurelwood attendance area.
So, refocusing back on the budget problem. Schiel worked with staff and the architect as well as met with the Laurelwood community and staff. They were able to find cost-saving solutions that brought the plan down to $157.2 million, still $8.4 million over budget. So, Schiel presented four options for Laurelwood that would get the project back under budget and keep up with the opening date of August 2026.
The first option would be to keep the project as is, without the cost-saving solutions, and increase the total project budget by $38.4 million. Another option would be to implement cost savings and increase the total project budget by $8.4 million. They could also take the project out to bid with one of the buildings as a “bid alternate.” And the last option is called Site Plan #2.
Site Plan #2 reduces six classrooms and one collab space. It would reduce student capacity to 598 but would keep all grade levels together, something the other options were lacking. Still, the multipurpose area, kitchen, administration, and wellness will be designed to accommodate 800 students. It would also have preschool, SAI, and other classrooms on campus that, in the future, could accommodate more students. This plan’s current cost estimate is $150.8 million, still $2 million over budget but Schiel said they can continue to try to bring it under budget.
Site Plan #2 was the favorite for Board Clerk Jim Canova since he was looking for flexibility. The right sized school for their current needs but with room to grow if needed. Board Vice President Bonnie Lieberman also preferred Site Plan #2. She said they need a plan that accommodates future growth while not over-committing to students who might never come.
Lieberman has been advocating for this project for years and her Trustee Area includes Laurelwood. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else in that community who worked harder to advance this project than I have,” said Lieberman. “It’s been about 5 or 6 years but in the last several years a lot has changed.
“Despite all the time and energy that I spent advocating for the original proposal,” she continued. “I cannot in good conscience support a plan to build an 800-student school, it’s not in the best interest of the District or of the schools or the kids in the District, which I care very much about. It would simply be irresponsible in my opinion.”
Board Member Dr. Michele Ryan was worried that construction costs could continue to grow and that even Site Plan #2 would grow out of budget again. Board Member Andy Ratermann pointed out that Laurelwood already has a school that can accommodate 500 students.
The Board heard public comments from across the District with many saying they should just modernize the current Laurelwood campus or rebuild in place. Board Members Albert Gonzalez and Jodi Muirhead wanted more information on what that would look like. Gonzalez said the train hasn’t left the station yet and they could still change their mind.
Schiel warned that they haven’t done any work into seeing what it would take to rebuild in place and he wouldn’t feel right gathering an estimate of the costs without meeting again with Laurelwood staff and families.
The Board was split on whether they should stay the course with the new Laurelwood school or abandon their plans to fix up the current Laurelwood instead. A motion to go with Site Plan #2 passed 4 to 3. Ratermann, Dr. Ryan and Board President Vickie Fairchild voted “no” and Canova, Lieberman, Gonzalez, and Muirhead voted “yes.”
Last meeting, Student Board Member Anika Bose brought up concerns about school meals and a report on that very subject was already in the works. Schiel shared the findings they discovered with their new consultant, Brigaid. Brigaid recommended more scratch-cooked foods, growing the scratch programs, and increasing the skills and promotional opportunities for staff. They also recommended reducing the menu items, increasing speed scratch and scratch items, increasing staffing, and creating clearer standards for safety and sanitation.
Short-term plans include developing a plan to provide scratch-cooked items to elementary schools from the Huerta/Macdonald kitchen. They will also form a Nutrition Committee this month and have them meet regularly. To get feedback from high school students, there will be a QR code for daily feedback and there will be a feedback link for younger students.
Long term, they want to aim for a menu that is a minimum of 40% scratch cooking to qualify for funding. They also want to work on professional development and training for staff.
The 2-year consultant agreement with Brigaid and their plans passed. The cost for this agreement is $334,000 using funds they have for nutrition services.
The Board approved authorizing the sale of the Measure BB bond via a competitive bid process, which is what they have done in the past. This is for the second series of the bond for $170 million. The second series is needed to fund future Measure BB projects like Laurelwood/Patrick Henry and other campus modernizations.
Rich Malone, Chief Operating Officer for Government Financial Services Joint Powers Authority, said taxpayers will save a lot of money paying off the bond thanks to a lower tax rate and shorter term than expected. The assessed valuation has done better and grown more than they projected and interest rates have been lower than projected. Schiel confirmed that they have shorted the bond’s payback term by 10 years.
The sale passed and will come back on March 23 to present the bond sale results.
The Board also heard presentations from Mateo Moyoli, a student at Santa Clara High School, and Eli Lopez Contreras, standing in for Wilson High School’s Student Senator Monique Jones.
Fairchild adjourned the meeting in memory of Susan Foster. The next regularly scheduled Santa Clara Unified Board meeting is on Thursday, March 9.