As Dana Hills High School celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the Capistrano Unified School District continues to seek funding for infrastructure improvements to repair or replace deteriorating facilities.
Dana Hills High School was built in 1972 and opened in 1973. As a 50-year-old building, Dana Hills Principal Brad Baker explained that the school faces heating, ventilation and air conditioning, electrical, and foundational issues.
“When I first got the job here, it was pretty much like ‘Congratulations, you got the job,’ and really the second thing that was told to me is, ‘Hey, facilities (are) difficult at Dana; there’s some needs there,’ ” Baker said above the loud whine of the school’s HVAC unit behind the gym.
“Particularly the HVAC system, when we start school in August, September, it’s pretty warm, so keeping the HVAC system going is a big task for our maintenance operation,” Baker continued.
Baker added that there are days when the heat or air conditioning is out, and students and teachers have learned to dress in layers to prepare for hot or cold classrooms.
While many teachers try to combat the heat in some classrooms by opening the windows, many classrooms in the 50-year-old main building are windowless.
“We’re in constant repair, so that becomes an issue because that repair takes time, and when the parts need to be ordered or they’re hard to find, then our kids and our teachers go without AC or heat,” Baker said.
Baker added that when classrooms are crowded and kids are too hot or too cold, there are laws that regulate temperatures in classrooms to which the school must conform.
“We’re constantly fighting those things as infrastructure pieces when it comes to HVAC, electrical and the need for seismic retrofitting,” Baker said.
It is likely more cost-effective to demolish and rebuild the school rather than piecemealing the replacement of aging infrastructure, Baker said.
“Instead of doing the retrofitting and HVAC, electrical, a full-modernization would cost more than building a completely new school at Stonehill and Golden Lantern,” Baker said.
The newest buildings at Dana Hills, the science wing, are 20 years old and already showing rusting and warping in the classrooms, Baker said.
“This was the last investment in our school,” Baker said.
The greatest hurdle in raising funds for schools across Capistrano Unified School District is the lack of state funding available for facility repairs, Ryan Burris, the chief communications and public engagement officer for the district, said.
“For us, over the last eight years, just working in communities and discussing state facilities bonds and that kind of work in order to raise funding, that has definitely been a challenge,” Burris said.
For schools to receive state funds available for facility improvements, the school district needs to show that it has the funds to match.
Baker added that without the local community investing in its schools, the district cannot receive state matching funds, and the funds end up going to other schools.
“So, if you drive up to Tustin or some of our northern schools, they look like college campuses,” Baker said. “The classrooms have great AC and heating and very consistent electrical, and they’re just beautiful. You feel like you’re on a university campus.”
“I just don’t think that’s right that money that we have and we pay every day in taxes is going to other places,” Baker continued.
For Dana Hills High School, the district is looking to build a new classroom building, similar to what it has built at Aliso Niguel, Tesoro, San Juan Hills and San Clemente High Schools, which would cost about $24 million, Burris said.
“That would provide some new classrooms that would take the place of the portable buildings that are now on the corner of Golden Lantern,” Burris said.
“Ultimately though, the vision for Dana Hills specifically, because of the way that it is constructed, the age of it, would be if the school district had the money to take down the old building and build a brand new, state-of-the-art high school,” Burris continued.
The new 14-classroom building expected to replace the school’s portable buildings is anticipated to be built on the current sports field, Baker explained.
“The board passed funding, so now they are just working on getting a bid (for construction),” Baker said. “From there, the groundbreaking time and timeline will be by whichever company they go with.”
One area of the school that will see improvements soon is the library.
The Dolphin Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the high school, has fundraised to provide improvements in the library. Thanks to the Dolphin Foundation, the library will be upgraded with new furniture and mounted projectors, Chromebook stations and more, Baker said.
“We want the space to be a special place for kids to come and learn and teachers to bring classes again, to use it,” Baker said.
CUSD Insider posted a video sharing infrastructure issues across the Dana Hills campus to raise awareness of the issues.
The cost of a complete teardown and rebuild is estimated to cost between $150 million and $200 million, Burris said.
Adding to funding difficulties, increases in construction costs alone have caused the price of facility improvements to skyrocket, Burris said.
Over the years, the district has looked to fund facility improvements at Dana Hills High through bond measures. Voters, however, have rejected those measures on the ballot.
“When we ran the bond measure districtwide in 2015, one of the things that city leaders and community members told us was that we had to be creative about how we were looking to fund these facilities projects,” Burris said.
“So, there was a pretty good understanding that the budget that CUSD has cannot cover the cost of all of the facilities, improvements, repairs and upgrades that the district requires,” he continued.
In pursuing “creative” facets to funding improvements, the district began looking at surplus properties to bring in more funds. The district highlighted surplus properties to use ground lease payment proceeds to invest into local schools.
To ensure that funds from ground lease payments from a proposed apartment complex in the district’s bus yard benefit the local high school, the district’s Board of Trustees passed a resolution that states such coffers will be used toward Dana Hills.
“There is a priority by trustees and by the district that there is a significant amount of work that needs to take place at Dana Hills High School,” Burris said. “You can look at our budget and see that the money is not there to do that, which is one of the reasons why we have looked across the district to figure out what do we do with surplus properties and how we can use those to invest in our schools.”
If the proposed Victoria Boulevard Apartment project were to be developed at the bus yard in Dana Point and the school district received the estimated $40 million in ground lease payments up front, CUSD would still need to pursue a bond measure to get the remaining funds needed to make upgrades.
“Ultimately, there would have to be some sort of facilities bond measure that would cover the difference,” Burris said.
If the apartment project fails to materialize, the district must return to the drawing board.
“We do not have other options,” Burris said. “We don’t have another way to fund these improvements. The school gets older and older.”
“We’ve had a very rainy winter season. There are leaky roofs and all kinds of issues across the district,” Burris continued. “While we have funding that will pay for repair and things like that every year, it is not enough to do this significant amount of work that we need to do across the district and our older schools.”
Burris added that the district would continue to lobby the state to provide more funding for school facilities and classrooms, noting that the district has been somewhat successful in lobbying the state for more funding per student.
“It’s not OK for our teachers; they work hard, they deserve a workplace like anyone else when it comes to educating our future. They should have a comfortable workplace to do that,” Baker said. “Teaching and education is probably more complex than ever now, and I think asking for a facility that meets our basic needs isn’t too much to ask.”
Baker added that as an educator, he believes in the importance of investing in students and their education to ensure that they are successful and learn how to contribute to society.
“If they are doing well out in the community, we all benefit,” Baker said. “We don’t want to do the opposite and fail our kids and not prioritize them and then spend money on the back end for social help, prison, all those kinds of things that can come with the lack of education.”
Overall, Baker said that regardless of the challenges that the school faces with its facilities, “People come with their A-game every day,” Baker said.
“That’s been the hardest part of all of this; our teachers and our staff and our students, we’re doing great things,” Baker said. “Even data shows that our kids are learning at a high level, our teachers are teaching at a high level.”
“We have great things happening in this building; it’s just the building isn’t matching the greatness that’s happening,” Baker said. “So that’s what I’m looking for; it’s just again, be the voice and the face for our staff and our students to have an improved facility.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story included an incorrect cost estimate related to the 14-classroom building that the school district is looking to build at Dana Hills High. The construction is estimated to cost about $24 million.