Citizens of California school districts have been generous, the last few years, passing school bond proposals. Many schools were deteriorating physically, and were certainly not ready for modern teaching methods, and Los Angeles needed new schools because of overcrowding. One of the major pushes has been to bring the schools up to accessibility standards, mandated by both the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and California building codes. This is not only the right thing to do, but it also protects the districts from lawsuits that could be brought against school facilities that are not accessible by students, parents and employees that are disabled.
However, in some cases, bond money has been treated as if it were the personal pocket money of the architects designing the schools. There is oversight, but not about expense. If an architect wants an elementary school to have an expensive stainless steel school name sign that costs four times as much as one made of aluminum, no one dares to question it. Usually, the architect doesn't even to be aware of what such amenities cost.
How do I know all this? My husband and I have a sign company, and since we are specialists in what are called "ADA signs," we do hundreds of public projects, mostly K-12 schools. We get these jobs by bidding. I'm also in a rather unique position because I am one of the few "experts" in the field of accessible signage in the United States, and therefore am on a number of committees, both federal in scope and also within the state. I know a lot more about how the State Architect's office works than most sign companies, although it doesn't give me any preferential treatment as a bidder or a subcontractor. In preparing bids, we look at many sets of blueprints each week, and are able to see what has been specified. I know a thing or two about many physical access issues besides signs, and I am very often horrified at the waste I see when I look at what is being built with public money. No, I am not talking about good architecture. Good design is never a waste, and our students deserve to learn in well-designed, harmonious surroundings, rather than in ugly cement prisons. But good design does not have to cost more. And good planning, which seems to be most lacking, costs less.
I could go on and on about the waste just in signs alone. With every job, we bring back dozens of unneeded signs. We call it the "just in case" school of sign planning. "Let's have the sign company make these signs just in case we need them, or just in case it's in the code." For the architectural firm, it is cheaper than actually studying the code, or looking carefully at the site to see where signs would actually make sense, or consulting with the school staff. We have made entire sign systems twice, and had to be paid twice, because the architect did not check with the school to find the correct room numbers and functions. Of course the fact that the general contractor gets to add a percentage on to whatever we have bid puts them squarely on the side of "just in case." When we try to save the District money up front by pointing out waste before the signs are made, we are told, "just make the signs and if they are wrong, you will get to make them again and charge twice." Signs are a very small part of each multi-million dollar project, so you can only imagine the waste that goes on in other areas of the construction.
"Oh no!" I'm sure the Districts would cry. "We are protecting the taxpayer every inch of the way." If they are protecting us, it is with fortresses of paper. We just had our submittals rejected for one LAUSD job because they have added a requirement of 10 copies, bound, with table of contents and tabs, just for the signs. The sign schedule alone, listing each individual sign door by door, is almost 100 pages. That's thousands of pages of paper and many hours of staff time -- time that we can't spend making the best possible signs. And we know that there will never be more than three or four people at a time looking at these schedules. As a matter of fact, every evidence is that only one very low level staff person looks at them. That person will not answer most of the questions we include in our notes, probably because they won't be able to, or won't understand them, and we will have to beg and plead to get those answers. Then, when we finally finish the job, we may be asked for as many as ten original, individually signed and notarized (at $10 per signature) copies of our one year warranty! By the second time this happened to us, we, and every other subcontractor, knew enough to add to our bid for such nonsense. After all, it costs us both in time and money. Our staff of 18 now has five people who do nothing but paperwork compared to seven who actually make signs. I think you will agree that there is something out of balance here!
Two things just happened recently with the Los Angeles Unified School District that go very much hand in hand, I think. People who voted for the bonds should be demanding answers from the School Board. The building program was supposed to go until 2020. Just recently, however, the District announced that they were cutting the program short. It will end in 2012. They warned all contractors and subcontractors who have devoted most of their energies to the LAUSD, and who have added staff over the years, and learned to do things the "LAUSD way," that their work would end very abruptly and they should try to find other customers. Why? Of course it is true that the District may not need all the schools they had planned, because enrollment is declining. However, they acknowledged that they will be leaving much needed work undone. Bond money is running out. The money is not stretching as far as they thought it would.
Almost simultaneously, we started getting a new type of sign added to the LAUSD projects. We, small architectural sign companies that do not have electrical licenses, are being asked to provide digital electronic message board signs for each school. Not only that, but the District insists that these signs be purchased from a company in Florida. The District is demanding that we provide a lifetime warranty for these signs, but of course none of the local sign companies can do that. The only way it can be handled is to pay the Florida company $5000 to fly out and install the sign. Then, they will honor their lifetime warranty. All in all, our cost, with no mark up, is $25,000. Normally, since we have to finance this purchase for the District, paying COD and then waiting months to be paid, we would expect to add something on for handling charges. Of course the general contractor will add on something. The cost to the District will probably be closer to $30,000, in most cases much more than the entire ADA compliant sign system.
Now what would that money buy if it weren't being spent on an utter luxury item? You might be able to add a ramp to the entrance of an older school. You could probably out fit at least two elementary schools -- perhaps three, with brand new ADA compliant sign systems. I'm sure there are a lot of other items you can purchase for a school that needs upgrading for $25,000 or $30,000. And what will the school do with it's wonderful digital electronic message board? Let me see -- "Welcome Kindergarten of 2010." Of course there's Back to School Night and the Halloween Carnival. How would the community ever know about these important educational and social events without an electronic sign? I understand that a high school has enough events like plays, concerts, and games that such a sign might be helpful, but an elementary school?
The District has had wonderful publicity about some of the most attractive schools that have been built under the program. Indeed, some of them have real architectural worth, although others look like warehouses or jails painted in garish "trendy" colors. The public has been told that the facilities have come in "under budget." However, the public does not know about the millions of dollars in change orders for work that the District has insisted subcontractors complete, but that they have never approved for payment. And they certainly have no idea about the cost of items like the electronic signs that will evidently now be sprouting up in front of schools. They will probably assume that they were donated by the PTA, which would be the normal course of action. Probably the School Board doesn't know about them either. After all, why should they deal with such details? And the public does not know that, for every job, pounds and pounds of paperwork was generated -- most of it useful only in that it created a joB for someone who has to generate it, receive it, or file it, before it finally hits the recycling bin.
Los Angeles is certainly not alone in wasting bond money. San Francisco passed bonds some years ago specifically to do ADA upgrades, an administrator used the money to upgrade his house, among other illegalities. After a federal suit was brought, because the ADA upgrades were never made, they had to go back to the public for more money, and the public gave again. This time around, we actually prefer to work in San Francisco because their paperwork demands are not as ridiculous and we can concentrate more on signs. Also, their bond work is definitely not in the luxury class. They are doing only what is necessary, with no frills and much less waste. Otherwise, the public would mutiny, after having had their money wasted once.
So how about Los Angeles voters? Is anyone willing to ask the School Board why every school now needs an electronic sign, especially one shipped in from Florida? Would anyone like to ask why "green schools" need so much paper to get them built -- why submittals couldn't be electronic, and printed only as needed? For us, it will mean letting employees go, a lease on much more space than we will now need -- but for the citizens of Los Angeles, it means that they will still be faced with substandard schools in need of upgrades after they generously voted bonds for that very purpose.
Sharon Toji is a long-time community organizer and political activist who was a charter member and first clerk of the Irvine Unified School District Board of Directors. As an advocate for disability rights, she currently serves as voting delegate of the Hearing Loss Association of America to the American National Standards Association Committee on Building Accessibility (ANSI), and is on the California State Architect's Access Committee, the State Fire Marshal's Committee on Accessible Egress, and the Access Advisory Committee of the State Building Standards Commission. With her husband Tosh, she owns H Toji and Company, an architectural graphics company and Access Communications, a consulting company for communications issues in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).