Lodi Unified School District has already spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars laying the groundwork for a new school that some trustees say they can’t support.
The district’s proposed Green Tech High School Academy would be the first of its kind in California. It would provide college and career preparatory learning while focusing on sustainable environmental practices.
The proposed facility, scheduled for a fall 2014 opening, will be an active part of the educational process. For example, an on-site water treatment plant will be used as a teaching tool, as will solar panels installed in parking areas.
There would also be an agricultural component where students will be able to grow food, have it prepared in the school kitchen and enjoy the fruits of their labor in an outdoor dining area.
Among the academy’s top supporters are Assistant Superintendent Art Hand, board president George Neely and several site administrators.
Lodi High School assistant principal Jeff Palmquist and Bill Atterberry, who oversees the district’s adult school program, have been working on the plan for months. Unlike other building projects, the district has opted to first decide on the educational specifications before construction begins.
Palmquist said the academy builds on concepts the district is already using through ROP and other career tech programs.
“They’ve been successful in engaging students and giving them skills beyond only academics,” he said.
Focusing on three major themes of green technology — design, build, grow — the district believes the facility and its curriculum will provide graduating students with the opportunity to secure jobs directly in a new job market, or to develop their own businesses related to green technology, according to the educational philosophy detailed in a report by hired consultants Total School Solutions.
But a study released in July by the non-partisan Brookings Institution found that clean-technology jobs accounted for just 2 percent of employment nationwide and only slightly more — 2.2 percent — in Silicon Valley, the birthplace of many new jobs of this kind.
Rather than adding jobs, the study found, the sector actually lost 492 positions from 2003 to 2010 in the South Bay Area.
Palmquist sees the Green Tech Academy as a site to help students districtwide. For example, he said, it could be a gathering place for groups such as the Science Olympiad and agricultural departments at other high schools wanting to test a product or idea.
Each academy student would be issued a laptop to access not only the school’s wireless network, but digital textbooks as well. Due to the nature of the school, there would be no library.
The idea of a green school is not new, Palmquist said, adding that what makes Lodi Unified’s idea unique is combining sustainability practices with career technical paths.
“It’s the way that we’re putting it together that’s innovative,” he said.
But the project has its share of critics.
Parent Paul Verdegaal called it the wrong idea at the wrong time.
“The district is struggling just to keep things going and can’t even keep up with curriculum,” he said, pointing to the number of high school graduates who take remedial courses in college. “The sustainability thing is a nice concept ... but sustainability comes from doing what my parents told me: ‘When you leave the room, turn the light out.’
“There’s a lot of interest in providing green skills in Lodi Unified, but right away I thought, ‘Gee, that’s a lot of money we’re going to spend right now.’”
$37 million price tag
The district is banking on innovative funding to pay for the new school in the North Stockton area.
It is staff’s plan that construction of the $37 million facility would be funded by federal grants, state building funds, private partnerships and other sources. The remaining balance could come from Measure L, the school bond approved by North Stockton voters last decade, according to Neely.
Fellow trustee Ron Heberle is skeptical.
“Now is not the time for an expense of this magnitude,” he told his peers last month, adding that three weeks into the new school year, staff was still struggling to find desks for all of the district’s students.
“I don’t want this project to be a drain. Opening this school will have a rippling effect on our current schools. You open a new school, you limit opportunities for other students,” Heberle said.
Not only are he and other trustees concerned with the school’s construction price tag, but its ongoing operating costs are not yet figured into the budget.
But Neely insists the money to build the academy is not the same funding that buys paper and other school supplies.
“We will still be challenged at that level with or without this project,” he said. “This does not have to be a distraction, but an addition.”
Teachers’ union president Jeff Johnston disagrees and points to the requirement of general fund money to pay for teachers and other operating costs once the academy is complete. He also said that spending $37 million for construction is not the best public relations move for a district that has struggled in recent years not to lay off employees.
His wife, fellow teacher Nanci Johnston, was a bit more eloquent at a meeting last month.
“Right now, the house is broken,” she said of the district. “Instead of building the new one and moving into it, you fix the old house.”
The site, just off Lower Sacramento Road between McNair and Bear Creek high schools, was purchased by the district at about the same time with specific plans to build a middle school.
The project had been in the discussion phase for at least five years when Atterberry tossed the idea out.
To date, the district has paid $32,000 to Total School Solutions. For an additional $60,000, it plans to retain the consultants through construction which could begin next summer, according to Hand.
Last month, trustees pressed Hand as to whether there were similar academies Lodi Unified could review. He said the district’s would be pioneers in the effort.
“We don’t need to be first,” Heberle said at a recent board meeting. “This is a very expensive experiment.”
Verdegaal isn’t convinced either, and points to a number of failed green projects across the nation.
“It appears that LUSD is once again chasing pipe dreams at great cost in money and opportunities for students to actually learn, especially with reduced budgets,” he said. “Their new education solution to under-performance, drop-outs, and achievement gaps is a green academy.”
Verdegaal said he was once very interested in the district’s politics, and attended nearly every school board meeting for 10 years when the district was moving away from year-round school. His four children have since graduated.
During that time, he saw trustees approve one curriculum program after another and then witnessed students coming out of school with “fuzzy” math skills, he said.
“My experience over the years is (that) they are getting short changed. Can’t we focus on curriculum instead of building a new academy?” he said.
Verdegaal is also the farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in San Joaquin County where green ideas come up regularly. Additionally, he sees students who don’t understand science or math, key subjects in creating sustainable practices.
But much of it is about control, not actual practices, he said. Growers, for example, get more points for following sustainable guidelines instead of doing it for the right reasons.
As money allows, the district has been working its way through a list compiled by another consultant in 2008 to identify places it could save money by going green.
Hand is personally at the forefront of these plans and said the district has implemented more than $1.8 million in energy savings, to date.
Other energy-saving projects include a solar parking lot at the district office, a compressed natural gas school bus filling station used by the city in the past and revamping both Lodi high school gymnasiums with new ceiling lights.
The board has narrowly approved moving forward with the Green Tech Academy concept. Last month trustees Heberle and Ruth Davis voted against the plan, while trustee Michael Abdallah abstained without publicly providing a reason.
The final design should be up for a vote by year’s end.
Still, trustees Joe Nava and Bonnie Cassel, who calls herself an “eternal optimist,” are excited about the academy. Nava said he’s convinced by a presentation to the board that it’s a good project.
But in the end, Heberle and his wife, retired teacher Susan Heberle, disagreed with Cassel and Nava.
“It’s $37 million. You have students not sitting in desks and in classrooms that are not painted,” Susan Heberle said. “Right now doesn’t seem to be the right time.”
Hand understands the concern, he said, but is quick to add he’s never built a project where someone wasn’t against it.
“I believe we can build this school and improve our other schools with the concepts we develop here,” he said.
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.