[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

Bullet Proof: Evergreen Valley High School was built to withstand devastating earthquakes and scores of construction mistakes.

The High Price of Education

The East Side buys a state of the art high school--at $15 million over budget

By William Dean Hinton

BY EVERY ACCOUNT, the building of Evergreen Valley High School was a colossal undertaking. Comprising seven buildings on 52 acres on a hillside overlooking the Santa Clara valley, the high school is an $82.6 million marvel, with rounded forms designed to mimic the surrounding foothills and "repetitive columns and niches reminiscent of the fruit orchards that once dotted the site." This last bit of information was taken from the February issue of Contract magazine, an architectural digest that gave Evergreen a five-page spread under the headline "Cool School."

The school has lots of windows and neat features like electronic sliding doors in the cafeteria. Each of the buildings is painted in earth tones--yellow or green or brown--and the structure was built with extra rebar and concrete. "It's one of the best-built structures in the valley," says Alan Garofalo, who was named facilities director of East Side Union High School District midway through the building of Evergreen. "The school was overly engineered. If you had to be in a building when an 8.0 hits, one of these buildings is the one you'd want to be in."

Unfortunately for East Side taxpayers, the school also had a supersized budget. Expected to cost $66.7 million when it broke ground in the fall of 1999, Evergreen is $15 million over budget, caused mainly by what Garofalo calls "coordination issues."

According to district officials, the architect on the project, the San Jose-based Steinberg Group, failed to properly coordinate with structural, electrical, plumbing and mechanical subcontractors to provide an accurate set of design plans. That failure led to an extraordinary number of alterations during construction, changes that typically increase the cost of a project. Generally speaking, changes in new construction (as opposed to remodeling) are less than 2 percent of total cost. In the case of Evergreen, the price of alterations came to more than 20 percent.

The Steinberg Group asked for 748 of the project's 887 changes, totaling more than $7.8 million, according to figures tallied by Metro. Those numbers, which will have to be scrutinized by East Side officials, are certainly on the low side. For example, the district approved $2.9 million in January 2003 to accelerate construction because the project had fallen behind as a result of so many changes. And documents prepared by the district show that many changes were caused by architectural omissions, which could cost Steinberg once culpability is determined. "If it is attributed to error or omission," says Garofalo, "the architect eats it."

In July 2002, for example, metal stud connections in two of the buildings cost the district $57,000 because field conditions did not match contract drawings. Roof vents in Building A were not shown in contract documents, costing $4,000. Other items included drains not shown ($20,000), incorrect baseball and softball lines provided ($23,000), seismic expansion joints not provided ($39,000), wrong-sized windows drawn ($9,000), coiling door supports left out ($33,000), power for coiling doors omitted ($9,500), a wind girt left out ($43,000), conflicting elevator drawings ($21,000) and so on.

The overruns come at a particularly sensitive time for the district. Last summer, East Side Union was rattled by a controversy involving three of five school board trustees who ran up thousands of dollars in unauthorized purchases on district Visa cards. In February, new superintendent Esperanza Zendejas canceled administrator credit cards, saying they also had been abused. An audit on both is due in June.

The district received two unsatisfactory audits last summer in which auditors recommended procedures to prevent fraudulent purchases and noncompetitive bids. And at last week's trustee meeting, the board approved $7.4 million in cost-cutting moves, including the elimination of a dozen librarians, much to the outrage of the district workers. Trustees talk about the need to stay out of the media glare and East Side employees blame the media for making the district, in the words of one district worker, look like "a bunch of crooks."


Though some Evergreen parents interviewed for this story were unaware of overruns at the school, the costs are nothing new. Board member Patricia Martinez-Roach sounded alarm bells almost from the first change order, on Oct. 11, 2001. "To her credit, when change orders would come up, she would rip into [construction officials]," says trustee Craig Mann. "She was a hawk on that. For a while, we didn't have a meeting without a change order. It got to the point where everyone was asking, What is going on here?"

Martinez-Roach, a kindergarten teacher in the Franklin McKinley School District, became a trustee in 1994, three years after the Steinberg Group was contracted for more than $5 million to design the school. She says at one point she became so concerned about the Evergreen overruns that she told Garofalo she was taking allegations of negligence to the district attorney's office.

But the problems with construction of the school appear to be not so much criminal as poorly managed. Garofalo's predecessor was Manny Morales, a former principal elevated to director of facilities (including construction) who, trustees say, was unqualified to represent the district's construction projects.

"If I had to do it over again, I'd get more specialized management of the project," says Manuel Herrera, who has been an East Side trustee since 1990.

Says trustee Craig Mann: "Did we have the right experience with the folks managing the project? There's some questions about that. ...I believe we had some gaps in experience."

And Martinez-Roach says, "We didn't hire an expert within the district to build the school. Look, I'd like to be a surgeon, but I don't have the credentials."

Placing Morales in charge of facilities is yet another indictment of former Superintendent Joe Coto, who resigned June 30 to run for the state Assembly after 14 years with East Side. Coto was a popular superintendent who was said to overlook financial details. Fifty-nine East Side employees donated a total of $11,000 for his Assembly campaign, most of which arrived before he resigned from the district. Such ethical lapses have dogged Coto since his days with Oakland Unified School District in the late 1980s, a district that has suffered from unprepared students, budget deficits and lawsuits. "He has his DNA all over the trouble in Oakland," says a source familiar with Coto. "Their problems are a result of a series of poor leaders."

Coto, along with Morales and repre-sentatives of contractor S.J. Amoroso and construction manager Seville Group, declined to speak with Metro.

Steinberg Group president Rob Steinberg, a second-generation architect whose mom was a county supervisor, says many of the changes were beyond the control of his firm. For example, Duncan Sampson, owner of Sampson Steel, which supplied the steel for Evergreen's structure, died in May 2001 in a car accident, forcing a 10-month delay while new beams were cut and recut.

"He passed away at a very inopportune time because they were in the middle of fabricating the major structural steel members," Steinberg says. State inspectors, unaccustomed to the school design, were either reluctant to sign off on alterations or asked Steinberg to make additional adjustments. "We spent nine or 10 months trying to find a solution that was acceptable to the state, short of sending the steel back and having them refabricate it," Steinberg says. "We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours trying to work out a problem we didn't create."

Overall, the 10-year duration of the project was daunting, Steinberg says, with district officials coming and going, two contractors for two different phases of the project as well as the experimental nature of the design. "This was not a typical project," Steinberg says. "It spanned over a decade. A lot of the continuity of the players and directors evolved, changing over time. Significant construction issues were multiplied."

Even so, Steinberg will likely have to tell his side of the story in a courtroom. Martinez-Roach says she will ask board members to begin legal proceedings as early as the May board meeting. "We are looking at possible issues down the way, maybe with looking at trying to recoup some of the cost," Garofalo says.

The Steinberg Group is no stranger to the courtroom. San Jose is suing the architect, which is designing the interior of the new Civic Center, alleging Steinberg "negligently and wrongly" recommended a sprayed-on acoustical ceiling at the Tech Museum without the corresponding substrate, costing the city $100,000.

Gen-Con Inc. sued Steinberg in 1997 over delays at four schools in the Berryessa School District. According to court documents, Gen-Con lost a total of 401 days because it was "attempting to build the projects without a complete set of drawings and specifications," causing an estimated $626,000 in cost overruns.

Steinberg sued Oakland Unified for $150,000 in 1999 over nonpayment to remodel 10 schools. Oakland countersued for $7.8 million, alleging Steinberg breached its contract by failing to secure funding for the project through the state's Office of Public Construction.

The suits were settled confidentially so it is difficult to determine Steinberg's culpability. But the architect hasn't made many fans with the number of post-construction problems at Evergreen, most of which involve athletic-related facilities. The swimming pool, for example, could not be used for phys ed classes because the deck was too slick and needed an acid wash. The concrete floor between the locker room and showers also needed to be roughed up. The softball infield was too deep and had to be redone. Runways for the pole vault and long jump bordered the football field, prohibiting the stadium from being used for soccer and other events. The school has two baseball fields but only one softball field, which is against Title IX guidelines.

All the mistakes point to one thing, according to Alan Garofalo: the architect should have put its design through an extensive constructability review--a vetting of design plans by a team of independent professionals. In the wake of Evergreen, Garofalo says he now requires a review of all design plans over $250,000.

Rob Steinberg agrees, but says his company was not authorized to conduct a review, the contractor was. "That was not within the scope of our contract," he says.

The shame is that the school might never reach its full potential. Joe Coto once boasted of Evergreen that "we treat students well and prepare them well instead of pushing them around as numbers in dank and dreary portable classrooms. That is forward thinking of the first order." Last month, trustees approved a dozen dank and dreary portables to alleviate overcrowding at the school.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the April 14-20, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate