January 1, 2002 - From the January, 2002 issue

San Diego Unified School District Is Proving That Schools Can Reviltalize & Anchor Neighborhoods

School Districts have historically been characterized as jurisdictions that simply take what they need. That paradigm still exists in a few districts around the state, but it certainly doesn't characterize the San Diego Unified School District which is bending over backwards to involve stakeholders, reach out to the planning and redevelopment communities and truly use school facilities as a mechanism to revitalize neighborhoods. TPR was pleased to speak with Lou Smith, Chief Operating Officer for the San Diego Unified School District who talks to us about the evolving nature of school facilities construction.

Lou, San Diego is making some impresive strides with respect to school facilities with funding from state and local bond measures. What are some examples of the projects you're implementing? And how are you making this happen within the rather limited parameters of State facilities funding?

Let's first begin with the fiscal component. San Diego's Prop. MM is a $1.5 billion local school facilities bond measure. That bond is divided into two major funding streams-$500 million is allocated for school construction and $1 billion is targeted at school facility maintenance and upgrades. That new school facility allocation is then supplemented with Prop. 1A funds while the maintenance and upgrades are supplemented with private donations. With that capital we have the ability to construct 13 new elementary schools and rehabilitate 165 existing schools-virtually every school in our district will have work done.

A great example on the maintenance, repair and upgrade side is a high school in La Jolla. It's being upgraded with additional classrooms and new science facilities through substantial help from a Foundation. In fact, we've received so much aid from that Foundation that we're helping them create a swimming pool on a site owned by that school. We gave them $4 million and got back a facility worth $10 million. The School District now has the ability to use the pool for physical education and swim team practice. And the community now has a facility they can use and enjoy.

And on the new facilities side?

On the new facilities side we're in the process of building 13 new elementary schools, half of which will be located in City Heights-one of our most densely populated, underrepresented urban areas.

The historic framework for building schools is to go into these areas, take about 9-acres of land, displace a lot of families and unravel some of a neighborhood's community fabric. However in working with City Planning, the Redevelopment Agency, Price Charities and the New Amercian Schoolhouse we've found a way to use the same amount of land, not only construct a school, but to provide affordable housing, a commercial/retail component including municipal service providers and two joint-use play fields. It's a win-win-win situation on that site.

This project has brought up a lot of questions that still need to be answered. And we are charting new territory by asking other agencies to aid in the deliverance of the land acquisition, design and construction aspects, but in the end we'll have a revitalized neighborhood and a new school built. There may be a lot of questions that still need to be answered, but it's a win-win-win situation for all.

You've had success creating cooperative working environments in San Diego. However, in other municipalities across the state, there have been cases where this type of collaboration has been frowned upon because other departments or entities are afraid to work with the school district and/or the state process. How have you overcome that sense of fear in San Diego?

We're very fortunate to have a Superintendent, School Board, City Council, Mayor and Prop. MM Citizens' Oversight Committee who are huge fans of joint-use. This, more than anything, has helped persuade staff to prioritize this collaborative way of thinking.

And what have you heard when you've tried to partner with your Library or Recreation and Parks Departments about the advantages and disadvantages in the past of partnering with the school district?

The institutional bureaucracy has a lot of scar tissue regarding joint-use and partnerships because of some bad experiences over the past several decades. After a while, both sides simply gave up and stopped trying to make the relationship work. However, with the election of a new City Council that paradigm has changes.

Additionally, there's a realization that joint-use and collaboration benefits taxpayers. When taxpayers look to the City, the School Board and the School District to provide things for them, they don't see 12 different governmental agencies working for 3 or 4 different bureaucracies, they only see "government". We're realizing that we must act like a cohesive government if we hope to provide taxpayers the services that they deserve and pay for.

And how does that translate into "success"? You've come into this process, you've been there a year and a half. In your experience, what should be success?

Success should be defined as "better, cheaper and faster." That's the mantra we use around the office. That's what we're moving toward all the time. And that mandate puts a lot of pressure on us to find new ways of making things happen.

But it also leads us to the realization that "better, cheaper and faster" isn't only related to us providing a school facility. It too goes back to the collaboration I've spoken of previously. It's not just about building schools anymore, it's about fulfilling the needs of a community.

Now, the speed issue has been used as an excuse for failure in other large districts trying to grapple with overwhelming growth. What have you learned about the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing speed as the primary objective in getting these projects built?

John Madden always says, "speed kills". And there's a lot of truth in that, but not necessarily in a negative way.

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We tend to spend a lot of time breaking down each individual step and trying to find ways of doing things in parallel that used to be done in series. Because of that we can determine whether or not the first phase must take 6 months. Maybe it can be done in 4 months. And maybe the second phase can be done at the same time as the first.

Once you find out how long it really takes, you can show people that it's not just a matter of shaving 5 percent off the timeline, it's shaving 40- or 60 percent off. That translates into less problems because the problems you would've faced had you progressed slower are no longer there.

To put it bluntly, you've got to teach people that it's okay to run. You don't have to walk all the time.

And does this new culture provide a better product? There have been those in academia that say the product constructed by school districts is less than an A-level product. How are you changing that culture so you get the best out of the consultants and professionals you're hiring?

Unfortunately because of the system we created we had been getting a lot or C-level effort from people who should have been A-level students. So we spent a lot of time during the last 14 months "throwing the bums out", people who don't provide us with quality work are simply not invited back.

Now that that message is starting to get out, people are finally beginning to know what to expect from us and subsequently what we expect from them. Because of that we now have more quality firms biding on our work.

Translate that experience and evolution into something that can be replicated statewide. You've been drawn into discussions by the Speaker's Office and New Schools•Better Neighborhoods on how to improve the state funding process for new school facilities making these exceptional projects you describe the norm rather than the exception. What concerns do you bring into those discussions and what are the possibilities of those discussions at the state level, for doing things in a new way? What are the problems that need to be addressed if we are going to consider doing it in a different way at the state level?

Getting these pilot projects into the mainstream really comes down to communication. There are a lot of agencies and stakeholders involved in building of new schools and if we can communicate and work cooperatively, both at the state and local levels, we can do wonderful things. I'm really encouraged that we're having this high-level leadership and that people continue to be interested in the subject matter.

But what must happen? What would be the real changes that would facilitate the kinds of City Heights-type and renovation/modernization projects that you've used as examples, system wide? What would you need to have changed?

We must alter the system so that the regulatory agencies download more authority either to us or some city agency. Let us complete EIRs, let us complete siting and let us complete design approvals. All of these facets don't need to go to the Department of Education or the State Architect, other agencies have the wherewithal and knowledge to handle them in a timely matter. The process presently in place doesn't allow us to shorten the current and lengthy review period.

Now representing San Diego in the State Senate is Dede Alpert, the Chair of the Education Committee and a well-respected member of the Legislature. Are you thinking about how to use that political leadership to reform the rules that you work under? Or is there, as in many communities, a disconnect between the frustrations at the local level and what's happening in Sacramento?

The link between the School District and Senator Alpert is getting stronger and stronger. She has been an enormous help to us and is in the process of aiding in the development of a streamlined school development process that will alleviate some of the aforementioned problems through design-build legislation recently signed by Gov. Davis.

That legislation relates directly to the "better, cheaper, faster" mantra. From my experience with the federal government we found that design-build can cut construction time, provide a higher quality product and control cost more effectively than the normal construction process.

How does this actually translate to people outside of San Diego and at the state level? What should they be taking away from what you've learned with respect to facilities?

This "new" facilities system isn't something that requires a bunch of new employees or special consultants. What I most admire about this collaborative environment we've created is that we're using the same 47 people we had on board when I arrived. It's just a matter of showing them that there's a system that works. Nothing major needs to be changed, we just need to let everybody play to their strengths and keep a clear focus on the collective goal.

If we use everyone's background and really prioritize those assets, we have the ability to be creative and take changes--even an East Coast offense throws a deep pass once in a while.

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