La Honda School, Part 2: The Demolition

On September 6th 2016, I put up this blog post about La Honda Elementary School. We had come back from our sabbatical (2015-16) to learn that the main classroom building at LHE was scheduled to be torn down as part of a new construction project.

Well, now they have done it. So here’s a little slideshow of part of the demolition of that building. First however, please check out my website about what they could have done with that building rather than demolishing it: http://designations.weebly.com/

I have expressed my concern about this project to the school board and LHPUSD administration in writing more than once. Below, I may include some of my many missives and reflections, but let me try a summary first…

  • Bond Measure I does not mention removing a classroom building at LHE. New construction at LHE is also not mentioned. Thus, doing both is a misappropriation of those funds and a violation of what the voter’s approved.
  • An Oversight Committee was also mandated by Bond Measure I and there has not been one since 2010. Thus, there has been no regulated oversight of this project.
  • In order to understand the gravity of this debacle one has to understand what happened in 2008 when the Zahn Group mismanaged construction projects at the high school. The LHPUSD Superintendent and Finance Manager were fired, the Zahn Group successfully sued (but the school board that had approved everything was untouched?), and SMCOE took over LHPUSD for two years. Lots of articles about this event, lots more to know, but some of those involved in the current debacle evidently do not know that sad history.
  • 10 years later, here we are (2008 – 2018). Decision makers will say that this was the best choice for the money, but the money was earmarked, and not for new construction or demolitions at LHE. Bond Measure I money should have gone to building a new high school (it’s main intention), or at least fix the middle school which still languishes in portable classrooms. The scar of the temporary middle school is still there on campus. Why wasn’t something built there first?
  • LHPUSD notwithstanding, La Honda and Pescadero are not unified. There are perennial problems integrating the two communities, and yes, it can be a race issue. So why did the district choose to build something new in La Honda and not in Pescadero?
  • Fearmongering! In one school board meeting, I heard a concern over earthquake safety because of current building codes. It may be that a seismic retrofit is costly, so don’t do it. Maintain what you’ve got! If the age of the building and the current code differences make it unsafe, then so is the multi at LHE, so is PM/HS, so are some buildings at PES. Then there was fear of alternative uses for the building, like art studios and science labs. “Stranger danger?” Really? Finger-printed and vetted do-gooders wanting to expand instructional options do not a danger make!
  • Finally approved, the demolition has happened rapidly and thoughtlessly. (What about that asbestos, was that in the budget?) Rather than recycling the materials, specifically the wood that is still quite valuable, the building was torn down during school hours, then smashed to smithereens, scooped up, and sent to a landfill. Tragically wasteful, shamefully stupid!

I contemplated putting more of my notes and unsent editorials here, but I want to leave out names. Most people do the best they can, and I try to look for the best in most people. There may be some nefarious doings hereabouts, but I hope not. Instead, good intentions have paved a road elsewhere. I wish there were more people as concerned as I, and if so, there are more details to know. But I’ll just share a couple more bits.

Here’s a letter that I wrote to the board…

Pre-mortem: Bond Project at LHE, 2016

I learned about the concept of a “premortem” in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” It is simply a tool to analyze potential failures before they happen. The following is merely a preliminary list of issues that should be addressed now so as to avoid problems later.

  1. The intent of Bond Measure I, and the specific language in it. The big project or main focus of the bond was to be a new high school, with the middle school being upgraded by moving into the high school. If there are not now sufficient funds for that purpose, then rectifying the situation that was created for the middle school in the aftermath of 2008 would seem prudent. Should the district continue to house the middle school in portables and not upgrade the high school?
  2. Who was involved in the planning? I know it is difficult to get community members and even staff to attend school board and other meetings. However, if a full representation of stakeholders was not involved from the get go, those who come along later could make a justifiable criticism. The list of participants in the process is important, and decision makers should put their names on their ideas. Further, who are the contractors or others giving bids? Do they, or their subcontractors, stand to make more money based on their recommendations?
  3. Communication, transparency, full disclosure. Even if people do not attend meetings, the district needs to be able to prove it made more than a good faith and thorough effort to inform staff, community members, local media, and others of everything. Further, the narrative of what is being done now needs to include the past (ie. that DSK was the original architect on the bond project in 2008). Given the past fiasco, the district must communicate more clearly and completely than ever.
  4. No oversight! The bond measure specifically states that there must be independent oversight. However, from what I can tell from the district website, there have been no minutes from bond oversight committees since 2010 (and those links don’t work). Did I see that there was recruitment for both the bond and parcel tax oversight committees in the fall of 2014? The lack of an oversight committee diminishes the credibility of the district as it moves forward in the process of implementing bond projects.
  5. Pyrrhic victory. Presuming the project goes well and stays under budget, do you not still lose a classroom and a sports field? If you demolish the current main classroom building you will lose much more. What happens if there is an influx of families to La Honda? What happens if those who previously defected from the district now return (perhaps because you have programs to go with the new buildings)? How would the district accommodate more students? And what happens if the project goes over budget?
  6. Known unknowns. You’ve already shared your total budget ($4.4 mil.) with contractors. Don’t expect them to come in on time, under budget. You’ve already lost $8000 on the first architect. And why pay an architect when the style, shape, and size of modular buildings is pretty much known? Anyway, this item is really about unforeseen future problems with the project, and they are inevitable. As a teacher, I want my students to embrace their mistakes, however a project manager hopes there are none, but there will be. Thus this pre-mortem. I leave it to you to imagine, based on what you’ve planned, how it won’t go as planned, what can go wrong, weaknesses in your vision, and what you will do about them. I would seek similar input from all your contractors – and the current school board candidates, as they will represent a new majority.

    Respectfully submitted, Randy Vail

About Earthquake Safety…

More than once, in discussions about applying Bond Measure I funds to new construction at La Honda Elementary, it was suggested that the old building should be torn down because a seismic retrofit based on newer building codes would be cost prohibitive, and thus it is seismically unsafe. This is fear mongering. In fact, the existing building has proven its seismic worthiness by surviving without damage for almost 60 years. Whatever the new building codes, the existing classroom building has weathered the following Bay Area earthquakes…

  • 1979 Magnitude 6.0 Undetermined fault – Coyote Lake Earthquake
  • 1980 Magnitude 6.0 Mt. Diablo-Greenville fault – Livermore Earthquake
  • 1984 Magnitude 6.3 Calaveras fault – Morgan Hill Earthquake
  • 1989 Magnitude 7.1 San Andreas fault – Loma Prieta Earthquake
  • 2001 Magnitude 5.1 West Napa fault – Napa Earthquake
  • 2007 Magnitude 5.6 Calaveras fault

Source: http://www.earthquakesafety.com/earthquake-history.html

If you have read this far, I hope you’ll inform the LHPUSD school board and the administration of the errors in their planning and encourage them to bear in mind the mistakes of the past in planning for the future. While I thought new construction at LHE (without oversight) was a mistake, the destruction of a functional building that could be repurposed in many ways was just dumb – a fiasco like 2008. Now, seeing the thoughtless and wasteful demo project, insult is added to injury on top of idiocy. We can do better. The students are counting on it!

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