Theodore Judah construction project to add much needed classrooms

Major construction is will be coming to Theodore Judah Elementary School. As Sacramento City School Board of Education member Jeff Cuneo stated, “Theodore Judah is in many ways a victim of its own success.”

In the not too distant past Judah, as its commonly referred to by parents and neighbors, was a struggling school with low popularity and low enrollment. At that time many parents simply sent their children elsewhere for education.

However, thanks to a solid administration working hand-in-hand with a committed group of parents, the school now features some of the most desirable “boutique” educational programs including art, orchestra, and garden-science programs. (See story on the garden program-science on page 17.) Enrollment is up to more than 500 students largely due to these achievements. And now people are moving into the Judah area often because they know about the school.

After absorbing students from nearby school closures, the impacts of limited space began to be felt on an even more acute level. The once popular preschool program was closed down and moved to another school. The spaces dedicated to art, orchestra, and the garden-science programs are now being needed to house traditional classrooms. Administrators, parents, and children are worried that the programs they had worked so hard to build up, could quite possibly be marginalized at best, or at worst jettisoned.

Anticipating these changes, and in the spirit of the Judah community coming together to create a school that reflects their values and vision, well known Sacramento architect Ron Vrilakas, began working closely with school leaders on an expansion plan.

This plan would increase the number of classrooms by nine by adding a modern two story building in the center of the campus. Vrilakas’ project hoped to remain competitive in price and cost efficiency over the long term, and to fit in well with the historic and natural beauty of the campus including its organic gardens.

When they completed the design, the school and its community of teachers, parents and volunteers who run the diverse educational programs again felt the familiar pride that comes with engagement, careful thought, and personal dedication.

It was not too surprising then that quite suddenly toward the end of the school year when the district announced they were going to solve the problems of Judah’s space by relocating a used two-story portable building from another campus that more than a few feathers were ruffled.

A series of open meetings at Judah attended by anywhere from 20-50 individuals, were often contentious. Rumors swirled including one that all the children who would be living in McKinley Village be going to Caleb Greenwood and that the developers funds that go to the district would follow those students to that location (at least for the education of the elementary school children). But this is an issue that Cuneo says is still being decided.

The biggest issue at the meetings was that the Judah community wanted some numbers that could help them consider the costs of the different options of buildings that could be constructed. Specifically, they wanted the district to provide three different options of buildings, including one just like, or almost identical, to Vrilakas’ design and include cost comparisons.

On Friday, May 2, the estimates were provided during a meeting open to the community held in the auditorium. The estimated cost of relocating a used two-story portable ranged between $2,880,900 – $3,026,914 while construction of a new two-story building ranged between $5,212,291 and $6,722,908.

At first glance it seemed obvious that the relocation of a used two-story portable was the fiscally prudent thing to do. Parents expressed disappointment and there was a bit of bickering about the validity of the figures with some parents even declaring that the “numbers were obviously cooked.”

Perhaps the most interesting point in the meeting was when Vrilakis, well-seasoned and experienced with such matters, began to drill down into the rubrics, and line items provided to back up the figures. Vrilakis began to point out some errors to district representatives. His biggest issue was that these numbers, in his mind, were comparing apples to oranges and therefore not useful in making choices between options.

Once it became clear the district was intent about sticking with the cheapest option, the meeting ended with one long time Judah parent thanking the district and stating that he was grateful that the district was stepping up to build something, and to build it fast, to solve this problem. The comment was followed by applause even by those who expressed misgivings. The California Environmental Quality Act and other pre-design issues were slated to be addressed from about May 2014 to January 2015 and construction was to begin as early as May 2015, with it all completed by November.

School ended for summer with a commitment by Judah representatives (the principal, a few PTA members and parents) to inform neighbors, as well as the soccer and little leagues etc., of the plan and construction dates – especially those who owned houses on 39th Street right up against the fence line of the school where the two-story structure would be located.

The community “messaging” plan, as it was referred to by Judah’s representatives, was placed on hold throughout the summer months possibly because during this time Cuneo and Vrilakis met at least twice with district staff. During these meetings, it was made quite clear that the estimates provided at the May 2 open meeting were indeed flawed.

Vrilakis was right. Not only were the estimates comparing apples to oranges, but when they were adjusted, the differences between the costs of the options were significantly lessened.

During a small meeting on July 31 held on 39th Street, at a house whose backyard view would be impacted by the use of a two story modular, Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn, Cuneo, and eight to 10 other neighbors who live near to the school gathered to discuss the situation.

Cuneo informed those present about the meetings between Vrilakis, district representatives and himself – meetings, which he described as contentious. But, he explained that headway was made and that the cost estimates were not yet completely in place though they were definitely narrowing the differences. In fact, CEQA applications will contain both options. Cuneo promised to help get accurate information distribute it, and work with the community regarding their concerns and to whom they should go to to express them.

Cohn’s observation was that the issue of time would probably work against the community’s desire, but what might help is to set up a meeting with the new Superintendent Jose Banda, key district players, community members and Judah parents.

It was also agreed that it would be effective for the community to quickly, if not immediately, notify the school district about any of their concerns particularly regarding construction, noise, air and traffic as these are all key elements of the CEQA process.

The East Sacramento News will continue to monitor this issue and questions may be directed to Michael Saeltzer at tosaeltzer@yahoo.com.

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