San Juan Unified embarks on high school building plan

With a storeroom of chemicals behind him, Stuart Arthur teaches chemistry class at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks on Thursday, where the science rooms have too few electrical outlets and the plumbing is old.
With a storeroom of chemicals behind him, Stuart Arthur teaches chemistry class at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks on Thursday, where the science rooms have too few electrical outlets and the plumbing is old.

Rio Americano High School’s top bands have performed at the Sydney Opera House and New York City’s Lincoln Center. But when playing at the Wilhaggin campus, students are confined to the band room or cafeteria.

At Bella Vista High School, where the Science Olympiad team competes with the best in the region, there are too few electrical connections and too few lab stations for science students. Plumbing is old. Chemistry rooms at the Fair Oaks campus are below standard sizes.

Those facilities will get major overhauls starting next month as the San Juan Unified School District begins construction of $117 million in “signature” projects at nine high school campuses. The projects will be financed with about a third of the $350 million in Measure N bond funds voters approved in 2012.

District trustees gave a unanimous green light Tuesday night to the first two projects in March: A $12.5 million science wing at Bella Vista and a 350-seat theater at Rio Americano at a cost of $10.7 million. Completion of each is expected by early 2017.

Anne Tweedy, head of Bella Vista’s science department, said students will benefit greatly from working in a state-of-the-art science wing with sufficient space and modern equipment.

The school’s chemistry rooms are so small and underequipped now, she said, students cannot perform some of the most basic tasks. They can’t conduct experiments that involve flames from ordinary Bunsen burners. There’s no ventilation system to expel the gases emitted from experiments. One teacher, she said, uses fans. But he regularly ends up with a headache.

In her own class, there is one cleaning sink for 36 students. So cleanup is a logistical challenge.

“I put out tubs of water on counters so students have multiple places to wash things off and move on to the next class in time,” Tweedy said.

Science classes have 24 lab stations for up to 36 students. And in biology class, students need electricity and water to analyze DNA. To allow that work, Tweedy said, electrical cords crisscross the floor.

At Rio Americano, freshman Eliza Wechsler said the new theater will make a huge difference. Wechsler, 14, performs in two of the school’s eight bands, playing trumpet for the advanced concert band and the FM Jazz Ensemble.

When the bands perform in the cafeteria, Wechsler said, “you can imagine the acoustics aren’t great. It’s echoing. The new theater will give people a chance to hear what Rio band really is. It will let us sound good.

“For a band at our level, that’s what we need.”

Rio Americano band director Josh Murray said that, after students have performed nationally and internationally for decades, the project will convey “a measure of respect for the kids and all the work they put in.”

Besides those who participate in the concert and jazz bands and a small ensemble class, many students are dedicated to music in other ways, Murray said. “They go way above and beyond to improve themselves, practicing hours in the band room after school and at home, participating in extracurricular groups and playing gigs in the community.”

Trustees in interviews this week said the chosen projects came out of months of community meetings at each of the affected school sites. Consultants in 2013 identified more than $2 billion in repairs needed throughout the district.

The selected projects are to be completed in four phases over five years, with each phase requiring trustee approval. Combined, the costs are expected to reach about $86 million, or up to $117 million when accounting for inflation or necessary project changes.

Trustee Greg Paulo said he became enamored with having the schools and community members pursue signature projects that would benefit students throughout the district, in this case as they move from feeder schools through their respective high schools.

San Juan Board of Education President Pam Costa said she sees the projects as a sign of hope “that as we pass more bonds, or as more funding becomes available from the state, that we’re able to do more for each campus.”

Rio Americano’s upcoming theater project will accommodate a long list of performing arts needs at the school. Murray said it also will serve Civitas, a popular honors program at the campus that focuses on political science, philosophy, international relations, government and communications, often hosting special events and guest speakers.

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.

Construction schedule

March 2015 - Early 2017

Bella Vista: Science wing ($12.5 million)

Rio Americano: 350-seat theater ($10.7 million)

March 2016 - August 2017

Encina: Community center ($10.7 million)

El Camino: Performing arts center ($12 million)

March 2017 - December 2018

Casa Roble: Student union ($10.3 million)

Mira Loma: Stadium ($9.6 million)

March 2018 - December 2019

Del Campo: Theater/library ($10.3 million)

San Juan: Classroom upgrades ($4.8 million)

Mesa Verde: Stadium/athletics complex ($10.5 million)

Source: San Juan Unified School District