School construction becomes big business for Sonoma County designers, builders

This is the era of billions when it comes to quantifying all the construction work in the works at Sonoma County’s public schools and community college.

In recent years county voters have approved more than $1 billion in bonds to finance improvements at local school and college facilities, an unprecedented figure.

It is just the first phase of the funds sought for work that education officials hope one day to complete. Santa Rosa City Schools currently has bond financing for about a fifth of the $1.2 billion of projects in its master plan, and Santa Rosa Junior College has a list of roughly $1 billion in desired upgrades and deferred maintenance.

The efforts follow a significant amount of school construction already completed. The North Bay’s largest design firm, Quattrocchi Kwok Architects in Santa Rosa, counts $1.5 billion worth of education projects that it has designed in Northern California over 30 years in business.

It all adds up to much improved facilities for students and a significant injection of money into the local construction industry, according to school and building officials.

“You’re making an investment in the future of your community,” SRJC President Frank Chong said.

The college, he said, plans in the coming years to upgrade classrooms and construct a new science building to train the next generation of workers in public safety, health care and other fields.

Slightly more than 70,000 students are enrolled in the county’s 40 school districts. Roughly 30,000 more students take classes through the junior college, which has campuses and facilities in five locations.

In 2014 the junior college received voter approval to sell $410 million in bonds to improve those facilities. The first project, the $21 million renovation of the Burbank Auditorium on the Santa Rosa campus, is slated to begin next spring or summer.

Also in 2014, the Santa Rosa school district won voter approval to issue $229 million in facility bonds. The Petaluma school district received approval for $89 million and the Cotati-Rohnert Park district $80 million.

“It’s a sign that people really do care about education,” said Keith Woods, chief executive officer at the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group.

The school work has long provided steady business for local construction companies, Woods said, and proved especially valuable during a lengthy building downturn that began roughly eight years ago.

“It got a lot of people through the recession,” he said.

Around the county, the range of proposed campus projects is extensive. But the work typically falls into two broad categories: the performing arts centers, athletic facilities and other high-profile endeavors that become a source of school pride; and more mundane repair projects - the replacement of leaking roofs, ancient heating systems and other worn-out items - that multiplied in the recession years when school boards prioritized money for retaining teachers over facility upkeep.

The deferred maintenance may draw less public attention but it does improve student learning, school officials and architects said.

“It’s very difficult to teach when it’s raining outside and it’s raining inside,” said Steve Kwok, a senior principal at Quattrocchi Kwok Architects.

The firm, with a staff of 50, has focused almost exclusively on school projects, including the design of Windsor High and Napa County’s American Canyon High, dubbed in 2011 “America’s greenest school” in a Huffington Post blog.

But in this era, new campuses are less common than major reconstruction at older schools.

Kwok and fellow senior principal Mark Quattrocchi last week toured one of their designed projects, the $8.1 million renovation of the K-8 Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, which sits on the former Fremont School site on Humboldt Street. Construction workers there are finishing a two-story classroom building, with its own art studio, and a separate wing that features a black box theater, dance studio and music room.

Among the changes in school design from a generation ago are more natural lighting, outdoor spaces for study and movable furniture for transforming classrooms into small-group work areas.

“It’s all about creating these quality learning environments,” Quattrochi said.

The arts charter is temporarily housed at the Lewis Road education campus but is slated to move back to its campus early next year. Principal Paul Gaudreau summed up what the new buildings and improvements will mean for his staff and 400 students.

“We’re going to have a flagship, showplace campus where people can come and see what we’re doing,” he said.

This fall six county districts will seek voter approval for an additional $340 million in bonds. On the same Nov. 8 ballot, voters statewide will decide the fate of Proposition 51, which would provide ?$9 billion in bonds for school and community college facilities.

Among the districts is Cotati-Rohnert Park, the county’s third-largest. In November it will seek approval to issue $80 million in new bonds. The school board already has used part of the district’s 2014 bond funds to rebuild Thomas Page School in Cotati, to modernize the exteriors at Rancho Cotate High and other campuses and to improve technology, including making it possible for the district to accommodate up to 10,000 wireless devices on its campuses.

This fall officials hope to break ground at Rancho Cotate on a combined performing arts center, gymnasium and classroom facility that will cost more than $40 million.

The high school, nearly a half-century old, has in past years held theater and music performances in its cafeteria/multipurpose room. But the new facility will be the “biggest and best” of its kind in the North Bay, said Superintendent Robert Haley.

“Now we’re entering a new era,” Haley said.

The district of 6,300 students has reached the end of more than a decade of declining enrollment. Administrators expect the student body will grow in the years ahead from hundreds of new homes planned to be built in Rohnert Park.

In a time of school choice, Haley said, the new buildings and other improvements signal to the community that student learning matters.

“When parents pull up to the school, it makes them feel good about dropping their kids off,” he said.

Local architects and contractors say the education projects have long created sizable amounts of work for the construction industry.

“We’ve been working with Santa Rosa Junior College for probably over 40 years,” said Brian Wright, a principal with TLCD Architecture in Santa Rosa.

The firm’s designs include the buildings at SRJC’s Petaluma campus and, in Santa Rosa, the Doyle Library. TLCD also has been selected to work on the upcoming modernization of the Burbank Auditorium.

At Wright Contracting in Santa Rosa, Robin Stephani said the company has built 50 North Bay schools over the decades, including Elsie Allen High in Santa Rosa. Education facilities make up about 30 percent of Wright’s business.

Stephani, vice president of preconstruction, said the school construction work injects a significant amount of money not only into contracting businesses but also those that serve construction workers and their families.

If the economic benefits were ever calculated, she said, “it’d be a surprising number to most people.”

At AXIA Architects in Santa Rosa, school and other public projects comprise about half the firm’s business. AXIA designed Elsie Allen High, as well as new buildings at Piner High in Santa Rosa and Ukiah High.

Part of the construction reflects the way schools are changing, said AXIA President Doug Hilberman

“Career technical education has had a resurgence,” he said. As a result, schools need facilities for what once were called vocational classes.

At the junior college, trustees this fall are expected to consider a master plan containing projects for serving students over the next 15 years. High on the list is a new facility for science, technology, engineering and math.

“We haven’t had a new science building for 50 years,” Chong said.

If state voters pass Prop. 51 in November, the junior college is approved to received $34 million for such a science facility, said Leigh Sata, the college’s director of capital projects. To qualify for the state funds, the college has committed $35 million of local bond money to the project.

At the Santa Rosa City Schools district, the county’s largest, much of the $229 million in 2014 bond financing will go to keeping students “safe, warm and dry,” said Steven Eichman, assistant superintendent of business services.

Board President Donna Jeye said the list of “long overdue” improvements include replacement of “an antiquated phone system” and repairs to “leaky roofs, crumbling parking lots and worn-out bathrooms.”

When school budgets around California were cut during the recession, the Santa Rosa school board chose to avoid layoffs and larger class sizes by deferring maintenance. Jeye said the focus on student learning was the right choice “but there was a high price to pay for that.”

Santa Rosa’s bond funds also will pay for $42 million worth of technology upgrades at campuses throughout the district.

At Petaluma City Schools, the county’s second-largest district, the work from its 2014 bond funds includes a $3.8 million new track and artificial turf field at Casa Grande High, plus gym improvements at Petaluma High and combined “solar/shade structures” at nine campuses.

Also contemplated are new performing arts theaters at both the city’s high schools.

In Windsor, the fourth-largest district, work is slated to be completed next month on a two-story classroom building at Brooks Elementary. The improvements there are among the final $13 million in work financed by a $50 million bond measure approved by voters in 2008.

Windsor in November will seek voter approval for $62 million in school bonds. Meanwhile, Sonoma Valley, the county’s fifth-largest district, will seek approval for a $120 million bond measure.

School officials said the big benefit from better facilities is enhanced student achievement. But they also acknowledged the work affects school and community pride, teacher retention and home values.

Windsor Superintendent Steve Jorgensen said top facilities and effective teaching are needed to prepare students who will be competing globally.

“We want to be competitive,” Jorgensen said, “and I believe our community expects that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or

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