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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: Reopening Acton School | 07-11-2017
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Commentary by Max S. Duran
| Tuesday, Jul 11, 2017

For those who don’t know me, my name is Max Duran. I once held the position of trustee for the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District (AADUSD). Prior to that, I was a senior project manager, responsible for the construction of new schools and the modernization of existing schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District. I also held the position of school facilities planner and at one time I was a certified Division of State Architect (DSA) construction inspector.

After my retirement, I consulted with many school districts wishing to navigate the Department of Education’s cumbersome regulations on school construction. Until recently, I was a member of the county’s Facilities Network Committee.

Recently, the Agua Dulce-Acton Country Journal reported that the AADUSD board of trustees was attempting to reopen Acton Elementary. The article gave the impression that our school district was being hampered by DSA.

On the surface, one can make a case against DSA, but in reality, the role of DSA is to insure that all school districts provide students, teachers and to a lesser degree, parents, with a safe environment while at a publicly funded school.

During my tenure with the AADUSD, there were occasions when the district sought the easy way out and bypassed DSA’s inspection on several projects. It was always a challenge to encourage others to see the benefits of installing items per code. In the long run, it became easier and cheaper to label me as an obstructionist.

At one point, the board had considered reopening Acton Elementary School. As a former school facilities planner, I volunteered to conduct a survey of the school.

Ron Byrd and I visited the entire campus, including the outside spaces. We compiled a comprehensive report that modernized the school, which included making the site American with Disabilities Act compliant, repair or replacement of HVAC units, boiler and water heater upgrades. The report included a cost estimate and a timeline for completion.

At the end of my term, the new board had commissioned a consultant to perform the same task. We submitted our report to the consultant and the district superintendent, along with a cost estimate and photos. We never saw the consultant’s report, but I was told the school district paid $50,000. Our report had been done pro bono. Both reports went dormant and no action was ever taken.

A short time later, the board purchased several portable classrooms “on the cheap” and was applauded for its effort.

I bring up this story to remind the reader that all portables are not alike. During the class size reduction program, the California Department of Education allowed districts to place K-3 students in classrooms that were less than the traditional 960 square feet in size. Students enrolled in this program were loaded into classrooms of 20 students (or fewer) to 1 teacher. At the time, the loading standards (number of students housed in a classroom) were 35 square feet per student. Simple math tells us that for 20 students, times 35 square feet per student, a classroom size could be as small as 700 square feet.

At the time of the board’s purchase, the state had terminated this program due to lack of funding, and many districts were unloading portables. Our board acquired several buildings and placed them at Vasquez High.

Just before that school reopened, Vasquez held an open house. I visited the school and saw 30 desks crammed inside these classrooms (remember, the rule was 20 to 1 for K-3 students). Immediately, I wrote a letter to the then-superintendent, informing him of this fire- and life-safety hazard.

My warning fell on deaf ears. I never received a response. The students were placed inside these classrooms like sardines. I shudder to think of what could have happened if there had been a fire or earthquake.

The Country Journal has reported that the school board is reopening Acton School. The article quoted Mr. Tegtmeyer of TDM Architects Inc.: “DSA wants one project for all the required work. We (on the contrary) want to do the work in phases so (we) can take advantage of DSA guidelines – in order to break it down to make it more manageable so that we don’t need upgrading disabilities work when just fixing air conditioning.”

If the contract involved “fixing” air conditioning units, then this project might be exempt, assuming the new units weighed the same or less; otherwise the roof framing would have to be recalculated by a structural engineer.

DSA spells out a list of projects that are exempt from DSA’s approval; repairing air-conditioning units is one of them. A list of exempt projects can be found in DSA’s IR A-10.

But one need only do a “drive by” down Crown Valley Road to see the extent of the work being done. The board has removed from use one of the most valuable classrooms of this school: the kindergarten classroom. Remember, this classroom is a whopping 1,950 square feet. It contains a boys’ and girls’ restroom, one or two wash-sinks, extra cabinetry and a large storage room for supplies. No other classroom has its own separate playground space. The only other classroom that compares itself in cost would be a special education classroom which could include a tub and shower.

Why is this important information? Because the board approved the transformation of the kindergarten, along with its playground space and converted into office space and parking lot. All of this for the sake of a new board room – thereby devaluating the cost of that school. Also, had the town sought to declare Acton school a “historic site,” this modernization project just negated that possibility.

While many costs associated with this modernization project remain hidden from public view, it has been estimated the total cost of the project (excluding ADA requirements, because there aren’t any) exceeded $2 million – a far cry from fixing a few air conditioners. It’s no wonder DSA wants to review the total scope of work.

Also, the district’s architect has ignored complying with the ADA regulation. This failure could result in penalties being levied against the district, or civil lawsuits against individual board members. As a handicapped person, I appreciate the value of facilities with the ease to access to my destination.

Another observation was that “Acton currently has an old fire alarm system that works, but DSA want an automatic system.” And why not? Schools in California with new or modernized project exceeding $200,000 are required to have both automatic sprinklers and a fire alarm system that are connected to a supervising station.

In years past, a neighbor or a passerby would call the Fire Department if they heard the water gong or the fire horn activated at the school. Now, any fire alarm or sprinkler activation requires an automatic transmission to a remote supervising station, thereby notifying the Fire Station.

The comment was made that “the delay is now from DSA. Someone turned in the district.” Comments like that are inflammatory. All it does is ratchet up the rhetoric and place the district in an adversarial role with DSA.

Mr. Tegtmeyer reminds the board that the former inspector died and that another inspector would need to come on board and “start again,” whatever that means. Mr. Tegtmeyer should know that during the course of a project, a DSA inspector will often go on vacation, become ill or be reassigned. Most inspectors adapt to these circumstances. As a former inspector, I would mark up my set of working drawings with notes indicating the progress made or annotate any change orders that occurred during the course of the project. Most new inspectors would look at my drawings and familiarize themselves quickly with the project.

Finally, another board member played the “guilt card” by stating: “It’s the parents, teachers and students who will pay. The additional money is robbed from the classroom to pay for fees to the state and for contractors.” Comments like that attempt to blame others for their lack of planning.

In their attempt to usurp DSA’s role, the school board fragmented the project in order to deceive DSA. The board forgot that there are well over 1,050 school districts in this state, and all too often, many of them try to take the easy approach.

Instead, the board should learn to plan properly before committing to venture into a project. Otherwise the change orders alone will eat up any savings.

 

Max S. Duran is an Acton resident.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Ken Pfalzgraf Board Candidate

  2. Janet Klein Janet Klein says:

    Just thought you should know what is happening with your school district@Cheryl Klein

  3. “Taking the easy way out” means more money for the administrators at the DO, doesn’t it?

  4. Ken Pfalzgraf says:

    As we see in Max’s piece, this is about trying to fix something that’s been going on for a decade. Without going into detail, the district is certainly on a compliace track with DSA now, with Vasquez High School being a recent example of a fully permitted, inspected and signed off project. There’s a bit on this issue and Max’s editorial starting at the 1 minute mark of this Youtube video. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8yc8hvdlAwk

  5. Mike Rowe Mike Rowe says:

    That’s good old AADUSD for you. Always wasting money and time.

  6. Dawna Kennedy says:

    The board has been corrupt and self serving for many years. Although many residents such as myself have tried to fight for what’s right, we really lack the means and knowledge necessary to sway the vote. How can we get organized and make a concerted effort toward change?

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