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If You Build It, Nobody Will Come

By Nikki Kolhoff

Well, maybe not “nobody.” But so many fewer students will be coming to Samohi than our School District and elected School Board have been telling us -- down an anticipated 30 percent over 10 years, by their own estimates -- that SMMUSD’s classroom planning contractor says an entire building must be eliminated from the Samohi Campus Plan. They have known this for more than a year but withheld that important information.

And yet they still push ahead to knock down the iconic History Building and replace it with more classrooms. There is no way to justify the massive building they are doing, with more than a billion dollars of our bond money. Yet they seem determined to destroy the iconic History Building, when they don’t need to.

The District has known for a year that it doesn’t need the new building but withheld this information from the public. They have been unmovable in their determination to bulldoze the historic buildings, when adaptive reuse could preserve at least the familiar exteriors and cost many millions less. Isn’t Santa Monica supposed to be progressive, sustainable and green? The greenest building is the one that’s already built.

THAT DESTRUCTION MAY HAVE ALREADY HAPPENED BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS

Many pleas to the School Board, by individuals and historic preservation experts and organizations, local and national, and a petition last fall that quickly gained 6,100 signatures, have fallen on deaf ears. Beyond reason and logic, beyond fiduciary responsibilities, beyond any recognition of history and community values, they are determined to destroy those buildings -- when they know they don’t need to. They are not acting on behalf of our students, they are acting on their own ego-driven agenda.

The History Building is etched into the memories of every one of Samohi’s more than 50,000 alumni, their families and friends, and most Santa Monicans. It was built in 1913 atop Prospect Hill to take advantage of the sea breezes, before A/C, and the view to the Pacific. For many years, that one building was Santa Monica High School.

The 1933 Long Beach earthquake destroyed the original building but its 1937 replacement, built on its foundation, was in the now-treasured WPA-style, which a whole catalog of expert historians has declared well worth preserving. And let’s not forget: it was Dawson High in the classic film of ‘50s teenage disillusionment, “Rebel Without A Cause,” the second of only three films James Dean made before his tragic death at 24. The steps up to the entrance of the History Building play a prominent role in the film, known well to viewers around the world.

So this building belongs to the world, but first to Santa Monica and especially to all who ever set foot on the Samohi campus. It should be preserved at all costs, but in fact doing so will cost less.

THE DISTRICT KNEW A YEAR AGO THAT DECLINING ENROLLMENT MEANS AN ENTIRE CLASSROOM BUILDING IS NOT NEEDED

The School Board approved the Samohi Campus Plan in February 2019, with a projected cost of over $1 billion and more than doubling campus density.  But nothing has gone according to the plan. In just two years, shapes, sizes and locations of buildings have changed, new career academies were added and the library got postponed. But the one thing the District insists is set in stone is that the History Building must come down. This makes no sense.

On June 19, 2020, SMMUSD contractor, Brainspaces, published a “Room Use Analysis” showing how all classrooms would move like deck chairs during each phase of construction -- providing shocking revelations:

Career academies have already been built in the Business Building.

A new library and student center would be built practically where the History and Art Buildings are now.

The Language Building would be demolished and not replaced based on declining enrollment.

Then on February 5, 2021, the District received a new enrollment report that revealed a greater decline of 25 to 30 percent -- 840 fewer Samohi students by 2029. This should have put the nail in the coffin of a new classroom building, but SMMUSD hid this information too and continued full steam ahead.

NOW THAT YOU KNOW THE FACTS, LET’S LOOK AT WHAT THE DISTRICT DID AFTER KNOWING THEM

Summer 2020: Staff instructed the architect to incur costs of schematic designs.

August 2020: The School Board voted to award the lease-leaseback contract for Phase 3, which includes bulldozing historic buildings.

October 2020: The public learned of the planned demolition of the History Building. Over 6,100 residents and alumni signed a petition asking the School Board to save it, as did the Samohi Alumni Association and the Santa Monica Conservancy. The National Trust for Historic Preservation featured Samohi’s History Building as a “threatened” resource. Five of the seven Santa Monica Neighborhood Organizations and Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow requested the School Board study adaptive reuse instead of demolition.

November 2020: Staff admitted publicly that adaptive reuse had never been studied because the contractor said it would be expensive. 

The District issued a propaganda memo to say students need new spaces for “21st-century learning. . . The History Building is fundamentally unsuitable for future use.” Also, contradicting its own conclusion, the District memo included a new cost estimate for “Convert[ing] History to alternate program (i.e. library, etc) -- maintain exterior walls only, replacement of all interior, structure and foundations, and roof” at $28.6 million. So, including high estimates for soft costs, adaptive reuse would run $47.6 million, saving $34 million on extra classrooms the School Board and District knew were not needed.

January 2021: During the 7-hour School Board meeting not a single word was uttered by staff or the School Board about the costs of new buildings or new programs. The meeting was more like a pep rally for big shiny new buildings. School Board Vice President Laurie Lieberman said there was no reason to study adaptive reuse because, “It wouldn't be wise to spend money to validate what we already know.”

February 2021: The District PIO’s hit piece in a local paper attacked a former School Board candidate who called out bond mismanagement. The PIO also belittled the 6000+ people who had signed the petition asking to save the History Building.

SINCE THE ENROLLMENT REPORT WAS DELIVERED IN FEBRUARY 2021

There has been no School Board study of adaptive reuse.

The District attempted to accelerate the History Building’s demolition to spring break.

April 2021: Moody’s downgraded SMMUSD’s bond ratings due to ongoing structural deficits, dwindling reserves, and looming pension obligations.

May 2021: The School Board rushed to issue another $200 million in bonds that must be spent in three years and they issued a press release claiming they were saving the public money by spending all the bond money while interest rates were low, while knowing the project isn’t needed.

June 2021: The School Board ignored another formal request by community members to study adaptive reuse, while staff posted a memo claiming adaptive reuse “was thoroughly summarized and discussed” at the January 2021 meeting. It wasn’t.

This Week:  Without any public process the bond manager revealed on social media that the campus plan changed again, and demolition of the Art Building has been accelerated from a later phase to now, leaving art students without their facilities and programs for several years.

It was reported that a Samohi staff member said fencing is going up as soon as possible. “He said he was told they wanted to get it done fast before “the people who are trying to block it are successful.” He said they are not planning to build anything there, it will just be ground.”

WHAT IF THE PUBLIC HAD THIS INFORMATION WHEN THE DISTRICT DID?

The School Board has a proven history of lying and obfuscation, ignoring the public, and refusing to change course when wrong. Instead of disclosing new information and working with the community to revise the campus plan, the District buried it in hopes nobody would find out until it’s too late. Oops, I guess we didn’t need that last building after all. In the meantime, bond funds would be blown on an overpriced building we didn’t need while historic resources were sacrificed and other facilities remained in disrepair.

Well now we all know the truth. Stop the demolition NOW. The School Board must immediately halt Phase 3 and revise the remaining phases of the campus plan with full public disclosure and input.

We deserve better. We deserve a Brighter Future for SMMUSD.


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