This story was updated on May 30, 2018 with additional information from Xanthi Pinkerton, spokeswoman for EGUSD.
Angry parents and teachers got few answers from Elk Grove Unified School District officials Wednesday night about replacing Franklin Elementary with a new school.
“Accountability has not taken place, follow-through has not taken place,” said Dr. Jazz Kaur, a parent of a student at Franklin Elementary. “I want to see action.”
Kaur was among more than 90 parents, teachers and residents who packed into a town hall meeting held at Franklin Elementary School Wednesday night.
It was the second meeting in a week which the district held to address concerns about deteriorating conditions at the school.
“We have never forgotten about Franklin Elementary School,” said Robert Pierce, Deputy Superintendent of Business Services and Facilities. “You are a priority to us.”
Pierce was the sole presenter at a similar meeting last Thursday.
The school was built in 1955. Parents and teachers have long complained about poor air quality and finding rodents in classrooms. They have also cited inadequate parking and unsafe traffic conditions near the school.
Wednesday night, Bobbie Singh-Allen, the Elk Grove School Board Trustee representing the area, and Donna Cherry, Associate Superintendent for Pre-K -6 Education joined Pierce at the meeting.
“I do think it’s important to continue the conversation,” said Singh-Allen.
“There seems to be a lot of misinformation, and not a lot of (accurate) information.”
Pierce started the meeting by trying to answer some of the questions that were posed at the last meeting.
One was about the quality of the water at the school, which is supplied by wells.
“The well water of Franklin Elementary School is 100 percent safe,” he said.
The school does not have any lead pipes; instead, they are made of either copper or galvanized steel.
Pierce said that the school district tests the quality of the water at Franklin Elementary twice a week. That’s well above the state requirement of once a month.
A report that the school’s water had been contaminated with chloroform in 2006 was erroneous – it was another school by the same name in Sutter County that had the problem, according to Pierce.
However, he said the school did have violations in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 in which arsenic was found in the water. The district was cited because the state had adopted new standards in 2008, dropping from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.
Bottled water was handed out to everyone at the school, and signs were posted that the water was unsafe to use after each incident. The water was rechecked at the well head and re-chlorinated before pumped back into the school.
Pierce reported that the district has received nine reports of unwanted pests in classrooms in the past six month, five involving rodents, and four with insects. “It’s not uncommon, especially in rural schools,” he said.
A light moment came later Wednesday night when a young boy spoke about finding ants in his classroom one time, and another time, it was two spiders.
Singh-Allen responded that since she didn’t live far away, she has also found spiders in her home.
A number of parents were outraged that the district put together a handout Wednesday which showed no injuries or collisions on the travel routes to the school.
“It’s an insult,” said one woman, who accused the district of taking credit for the actions that parents took to avoid accidents while taking their children to school.
Pierce said that the handout was for informational purposes only, to show that the district does monitor traffic safety on school routes.
But he noted that the school district has no control over county roads, and that he has asked for signage, school crossing markers, to no avail.
He said he has asked the California Highway Patrol to come and help direct traffic once, but the issue has not been a priority with the county.
“I would gladly take the frustration tonight,” he said. “The comments are well received – they empowered me to get back to the table with the county (and tell them) ‘we got to do something here’ but they see it differently.”
He later added that some county officials and residents believe that widening the road would destroy the rural nature of the area, and promote unwanted development.
Several teachers wanted to know if the district tracks problems with air quality at the school, such as mold.
Pierce said that he was not aware of a single report of mold at the school but didn’t mean that it hadn’t been reported.
“Just going around mold testing every space – we don’t do that,’ he said. “It’s very costly.”
Air Conditioning and Heating Problems
Others complained about the temperature in the classroom, especially when it can get over 85 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the classroom feels like a jungle, and students often fall asleep.
Pierce said the work orders are issued each time a repair is requested, and urged parents and teachers to notify him if there is no response from the district.
“If I hear that something is not being addressed by someone in my department, then I would jump on that,” he said. “We’re not shying away from the fact that it is an old school.
Both the school’s principal and the custodian can track the work order status, and are free to share that information with teachers and parents, according to Xanthi Pinkerton, spokeswoman for EGUSD.
Teacher Cheryl Addams said every time she had complained about air quality in her classroom, the district has sent someone to check the HVAC system.
“Some if it is age, just age,” she said. “It can’t be fixed, people can come out, but isn’t fixable.”
“We have been putting Band-Aids on a lot of these problems,” she said. “Anything that we do is a temporary solution.”
It is the reason why she is advocating building a new school, but she fears that there has been a lot of misinformation about the project.
Some parents claimed that the district officials had previously promised 14 years ago to start building a new school this year but that was never the case.
“I can see how mis-information (breeds) mistrust,” said Singh-Allen. “I recognize that – it’s unfortunate. You don’t know and we take responsibility for that because you should know.”
Pierce asked how many in the audience were at the presentation last week, and more than half of the room raised their hands. But he said he would do a recap for those who didn’t see his presentation.
The idea for a new school came in 2016, when Zehnder Ranch Elementary and Robert J. McGarvey Elementary schools were opened. The boundaries for the school district had to be changed so that the new schools would be successful. At the time, three elementary schools were affected: Sunrise, Arlene Heim, and Franklin.
Over the course of changing the boundaries, the district realized that the school population for Franklin Elementary school would shrink drastically. (It currently has 796 students.)
At about the same time, the Elk Grove school district drew up its Facility Master Plan to help pass a local bond measure.
Measure M, which was approved in 2016, would raise $476 million to fund capital projects in the district for the next 10 years. Under the facilities plan, Franklin Elementary would get $13 million to renovate the school.
But district officials determined that it wasn’t worth the effort or the money to keep Franklin Elementary where it is.
“We knew there were things out of our control – we would never get domestic water from the county, we would never get domestic sewers from the county, we would never have the county improvements in the road structure,” Pierce said.
“At the end of the day, it’s a very old school, and it would be old buildings dressed up.”
So the decision was made to build a brand new school to replace Franklin Elementary, instead of just fixing it. The district had spent $3 million earlier from capital funds to buy a 10-acre site near Dorcey Drive and Gilliam Way, and another $1 million for design work.
“The impact was on us,” said Pierce. “We received no money from the state to buy the property. So that’s $3 million that could have been spent elsewhere.”
The new school, which could hold up an estimated 880 students, would cost $25 million to build. Under Prop 51, the local jurisdiction would have to come up with at least 50 percent of the funds to build new schools. The district also submitted an application for the funds from the state in April of 2017.
“We’re shovel ready,” said Pierce Wednesday of the new Franklin Elementary school. “If we get the state dollars, we’re ready to go.”
He said that recently, there has been some hope from the state. When Gov. Jerry Brown released his budget earlier this month, it included $ 640 million from Prop. 51, a statewide $9 billion bond measure passed in 2016. Its main purpose was to fund construction of new schools in the state.
Pierce said he has been pushing the state legislature to increase the amount of Prop 51 money to $1. 5 billion in the budget. But at the rate the money is being disbursed, it will take until 2022 before anyone sees that money.
“Franklin will be much, much sooner than that,” he said.
That’s because the state has to reimburse Elk Grove Unified. The district had spent $35 million to build three new elementary schools: C. W. Dillard which opened in 2015, and Zehnder Ranch and Robert J. McGarvey in 2016.
In the past, the state would release the bond money to the district on a monthly basis, but all that stopped under Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.
“It’s political, not rational,” Pierce said of the delay in releasing the funds.
However, Pinkerton said that doesn’t mean the district won’t use any Measure M funds to make improvements at Franklin Elementary school while waiting for Prop. 51 money. A list of site upgrades and major projects for the school was made available to parents and teachers at the meeting.
Kaur said she was frustrated at how much parents have already paid into the district to have the new Franklin Elementary school built, but never got a solid date on when construction was supposed to start.
“There is the issue of accountability that has not taken place to date,” she told district officials at the meeting Wednesday. “There has been a constant shift of potential dates…I appreciate your responsiveness but I want to see action, and not just take the information back.”
Pierce said he has been at the state capital at least once a week, pushing to see if the state legislature would amend Gov. Brown’s proposed budget to include the higher figure. Ultimately, it would be up to Gov. Brown to approve, veto or blue-line the budget.
“I would be working on the capital plan, using local dollars and state dollars, and our building priorities,” said Pierce. “If all that works fine, the board and staff would make a recommendation, and approve the recommendation.”
Singh-Allen urged parents and teachers to make their concerns known to the state legislators as well as the governor’s office via a website: https://repairourschoolsnow.com/
“I want to build your new school, but I need the (state) money,” she said.
According to Pinkerton, if the Prop. 51 money is released this year, EGUSD would typically receive it within 90 days. However, this can vary from project to project.
Once the district gets the money, it takes approximately 12-14 months to build a new elementary school, although weather may play a factor on how quickly construction is completed.
But other parents were concerned that even if the district got the state funds, it may not necessarily spend it on building a new school to replace Franklin Elementary. One woman noted that last year, the district’s board of trustees voted unanimously to spend $450 million to build new football fields and covered track. “How is that a priority over this?” she asked.
But Singh-Allen said that Measure M money was used to pay for the fields, and cannot be used to construct new schools.
Furthermore, Pierce said that the fields benefited thousands of high schools students who use the fields.
“It allows them to do things that they can’t do in inclement weather,” he said. “Without state funding, we’re stuck.”
The multi-purpose fields are also used for men’s and women’s soccer, physical education, lacrosse in addition to football and track and field events, according to Pinkerton. Though March 31, $18 million of Measure M money has been spent on the project.
Kaur pointedly asked Singh-Allen: “If you can get the money, then you will be fighting over it like cats and dogs. We need to know: what is your priority? Have you decided what schools are one, two, three, four?”
Singh-Allen said for her, Franklin Elementary is the top priority, noting that she lives on the other side of the field from the school.
“I know what your struggles are, but I’m only one vote,” she said. “It takes a village and you are part of my village.”
However, she said there has been no discussion by the board of trustees about which school will be built next.
That prompted resident Randy Bekker to call for a writing campaign to the rest of the board of trustees, and “blowing up” a Facebook campaign.
He also encouraged residents to show up en masse at board of trustee meetings and Elk Grove City meetings.
“Stand up… and get your voices heard,” he said.
“When you have this many people show up, they’re going to say, ’oh crap, we have a problem’ and your school, this school would be first,” he said.
A number of teachers wondered if something else could be done while waiting for the state money to be released.
“If we can’t get a new school, what are we doing in the meantime?” asked one woman. “We all like new stuff, new cars, new shiny stuff.”
Pierce said the school would still be maintained. “We’re going to continue to do what we do and make this the safest place that we can,” he said.
But others wonder if measures can be taken to reduce class sizes and overcrowding.
“We’re the same ones who are calling the fire marshal because we can’t fit in here,” said one woman.
Another woman asked if it would be possible to offload students to other schools, since there are no extra classrooms at the school.
But Pierce wasn’t sure that would be a good idea.
“There is a lot of emotion with that,” he said. “I’m a little cautious about spending dollars on someone who will be going somewhere else.”
But one woman said she is willing to look into sending her child to another school, but she doesn’t know what school has what space available in what grade level.
“Do the homework for us,” she said. “I (want to) have information to make an informed decision.”
She thinks that other families may be willing to look at other schools.
Pierce wasn’t so sure. “This school has such wonderful teachers,” he said. “Because it’s so high achieving, you’re not going to get a lot of volunteers.”
Associate superintendent Cherry said that every year, there are 40 children who transfer out of Franklin due to day care issues. But the school is closed to intra-district transfers from other schools because the school is already at capacity.
She also said that if Franklin offload students elsewhere, there is no guarantee that children in a single family could stay together and go to the same schools.
Pinkerton said that if Franklin did off-load students, it may result in downsizing the teaching staff at the school. Moreover, it would take a comprehensive analysis to determine space at neighboring schools, before the idea can be implemented.
As for year round school, the academic calendar for next year has already been set, so changes can’t be made until 2020.
“We do not have year round school because of the infrastructure, and the wear and tear that maintenance would take,” she said.
According to Pinkerton, year-round school means that 25 percent of the current enrollment is off track at any given time, which translates to less traffic at the school each day. That, in turn, translates to the need for fewer classrooms, and less children on the playground every day.
However, the year-round schedule means that improvement and maintenance projects usually handled during the summer would have to be done while students are on campus. But Pinkerton says the district can handle the additional work.
“We have a good history of managing these shortcomings as we have 15 elementary schools on year round,” she said.
Bekker also asked if the district can look adding portable units to campuses to create more classrooms.
Singh-Allen suggested that the Franklin community come together and meet during the summer, after the district has a better idea of the state budget.
Todd Wong, a parent of two Franklin students (and have a third ready to start school soon), told district officials he was thankful that they were willing to come to the town hall meeting, and face the wrath of parents, teachers and residents.
“We have passion for our kids, we are passionate because of the teachers, we care for them,” he said. “We have the passion – that’s why we’re here tonight.”
He also said that while he has sent many mails to Singh-Allen, it’s not because he hates her. “You’re not the enemy,” he said. “I know you care.”
Singh-Allen said she appreciate Wong’s comments, but said that he and the others were only doing what they thought was best.
“You have the right to be heard – please don’t think you have angered anyone,” she said. “We are all part of the village, we’re all on the same side. Anger comes from miscommunication.”
She encouraged everyone in the room to feel free to call her on her cell phone or e-mail her.
“Over-communication is not the problem,” she said. “I want to be in the meeting tonight, to have this conversation, this dialog, and follow-up. Hopefully, you have more information, but know that we’re all in this together and we’re going to get the school built.”