Renovation Under the Radar
Santa Ana Unified School District offers a lesson in how to upgrade and downsize at the same time

In 2007, the Santa Ana Unified School District’s (SAUSD) lease on an office building on Alton Street was set to expire. The district decided to stop leasing this and two other facilities and instead move several departments to SAUSD-owned buildings, including the main office. SAUSD took out a $29 million loan, $22 million of which would be used for the move and construction of a new warehouse.

The district left itself some wiggle room when it came to spending the money: A report put out by the investment company that issued the loan states that money was to be used “primarily” for the relocation of those departments. And, much to the consternation of some SAUSD employees and at least one school-board trustee, the district has done some wiggling—without informing the public about it.

During the move, which was completed earlier this year, administrators of the 54,000-student district also decided to use the loan money to make additional renovations at its headquarters, which included moving and revamping several departments and individual offices.

Three departments—the Educational Technology and Media Center, Instructional Media Center, and the Information Technology Center—were relocated to the lower floor on the northwest corner of the district office earlier this year, as outlined in floor plans presented to the public in 2007. This spring, additional construction began in the far-west wing of the building, an area never identified for renovations in the floor plans.

“During a time of fiscal crisis, wouldn’t it be prudent for staff to announce that the remodeling of the district offices went beyond what was necessary?” asks board member John Palacio.

The district isn’t required by law to publicly announce such changes. But since the multimillion-dollar loan for all of this is being paid for out of the same general fund that pays for district jobs and school facilities, it seems like an unusual—and some district employees say, deliberate—oversight. Especially since talk of money shortages, layoffs and a crisis within the district’s $487 million operating budget has dominated board meetings for most of the year (see “Benefits In Doubt,” July 2).

When the Weekly inquired about the additional remodeling, Deputy Superintendent Cathie Olsky pointed out that the gutting of an old workshop and subsequent plans to re-floor, re-window and repaint it, plus the installation of a sprinkler system, light fixtures and carpeting is not a remodel, but a “conversion.”

“Paint and carpet is what you have to do. It’s not being remodeled. It’s being converted from a workroom to an office,” she says of the expansion of the School Police division. The last cost figures she saw for the conversion, she says, were for “$13,000 or $14,000.” But according to district invoices obtained by the Weekly, the conversion has cost upward of $70,000, and it isn’t finished. Plans for the expansion were not publicly disclosed this year, according to district meeting minutes.

Other projects at the district offices that were never disclosed publicly but are listed in a summary, which was provided to the Weekly in early September, as completed, ongoing or slated to begin include those for the Facilities, Business Services and Purchasing departments.

District spokeswoman Angela Burrell says the Relocation Project was “referenced” during SAUSD building updates on three separate occasions this year. A review of district minutes for the dates she provided indicates that building updates were indeed given and that two references to the project were made. There is no record of a presentation dealing with the expansion of Police Services or the moving and revamping of additional departments.

District employees who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity say that additional renovations at the district office picked up speed after the arrival last February of Joe Dixon, the former head of facilities for the beleaguered Capistrano Unified School District. Dixon was appointed assistant superintendent for Governmental Relations and Facilities at a salary of $164,000 per year. Soon after, he initiated the repainting, re-carpeting, and knocking down and building of walls for the Facilities department’s new offices (including the blending of two former offices for his own). “He didn’t have to do much; he just shifted some desks around,” Burrell says. “There was no remodel.”

In order to accommodate Dixon’s staff in the new area, a police lieutenant and employees from the Building Services department were moved out. The renovations were paid for out of the Relocation Project fund and cost $7,500, according to the project summary.

“It’s a lot of money, and it’s not $7,000. It was probably done in a couple of different ways using different kinds of monies,” says one district employee who asked not to be named. “There’s a reason they did it that way.”

One of those reasons, says board member Palacio, may be that the district didn’t want to discuss new construction at the district office during a time when jobs were on the line (hundreds of classified staff positions were cut or reduced to part-time positions in August; the district now faces more cuts because of the state’s fiscal crisis).

In an interview conducted in one of the airy corner offices in question, Dixon says that, yes, more than a few desks were moved around in order to create the new space, but not much else. “There used to be a wall here; it was taken out,” he says. “It was two offices before.” Dixon says converting the former offices into new office space for his team “has created synergy,” and, he says, he’d be surprised if it cost more than $7,000.

But upgrades to the conference room used by the Facilities department team, which sits right next to the converted office area, cost nearly $6,000. Dixon and Olsky vigorously denied there had been any changes made to the room, known as “Conference Room 8.” Invoices later obtained by the Weekly specifically list $5,147 in audio-visual equipment for that room, as well as $690 for “painting, preparation and undercoating” for “Conference Room 8 and a room next door.” When asked for specific records pertaining to Dixon’s and his team’s offices, the district turned over an invoice for “various patching and wall repairs,” amounting to $7,120. If the conference-room upgrades are included as part of the Facilities department’s conversion, then the invoices total well more than $7,500.

Records later obtained include vague descriptors for renovations and construction bids at district headquarters made between May and October 2008 and paid for by the Relocation Project fund. The invoices are dated well after the originally planned relocations of other departments to the district office had been completed. It’s unclear if these invoices were for work done to the Facilities department or other internal office conversions, such as Business Services and Purchasing, which have also been added to the original Relocation Project. Among the invoices are: $8,481 for “heat and a/c for two new offices”; $1,588 for “window tinting” in “area of C135 in district office” (Area C135 refers to one of the old Building Services offices that was converted into part of the Facilities department offices); a total of $21,920 spent between June and July for “various patching and wall repairs”; two bids totaling $16,819 for two sets of double doors submitted in late October; $13,849 for a heating pump and cooling system for a “new Plan Room building at district offices.”

(Burrell says the “Plan Room building” is a newly converted room that now houses two building inspectors and is used to review bids, plans and architectural drawings. She had not responded to a request for comment about the other expenditures by press time.)

Ron Murrey, associate superintendent for Business Services, points to the report that states the Relocation Project loan would be used “primarily” to construct a new warehouse, refurbish district-owned facilities for a student-testing center and other non-administration-building renovation-related projects. “It says ‘primarily,’ not ‘exclusively,’” he says. Because the district is still (narrowly) within budget, there are plans to move and convert other departments, such as his own and Purchasing. He says the board has been updated of such changes along the way.

Board president Jose Hernandez says he has been kept abreast of all the changes made within the administration building and doesn’t object to them. “I was told the renovations were minor, between $5,500 and $7,500,” he says of the Facilities department changes. But he doesn’t recall, he says, if the information for those renovations, as well as others, were ever disclosed publicly.

Palacio believes the public is owed a presentation and cost breakdown of additional changes being made at the district office. “If these things are no big deal, then why wasn’t the public told?” he asks.

 

daltan@ocweekly.com

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