Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High School students object to hazardous, gross conditions

As maintenance funding has been delayed and diverted, the district’s second-oldest high school has fallen into disrepair, students and parents say.|

Montgomery High School senior Caidyn Peterson was glad she wore platform shoes.

When the bell rang Jan. 31, students heading to their last class had to dodge what looked like water flooding the hallways.

When sports practices were suddenly canceled after school, they learned it was actually raw sewage that was seeping up through the grates in the bathrooms and in science classrooms and spilling into the halls.

The backup is the most recent example of hazards, code violations and unpleasant conditions at Santa Rosa City Schools’ second-largest and second-oldest campus, which district officials admit needs more repairs than any other school.

The wooden skirting around the foundations of old portable classrooms is warped and rotting.

Students sometimes wait all day to go to the bathroom because there are not enough available, according to state standards.

The boys bathrooms, which are frequently vandalized, don’t have urinal dividers and are foul-smelling.

Exposed wires hang from the rafters in hallways.

Around every corner, there’s something in need of repair.

“It’s inhumane,” Peterson said. “It’s frustrating.”

‘There’s not enough money’

Built in 1958, Montgomery needs more repairs because of its age, but the district has failed to fund some projects over the years, and others have been put on hold because of more urgent needs.

In addition, constant vandalism diverts the money that does get allocated for repairs, according to Lisa Cavin, associate superintendent of business services for the Santa Rosa City Schools district.

Montgomery High is in a Bennett Valley neighborhood where the median income is $83,750, according to Sonoma County’s median income map.

In November 2014, Santa Rosa voters approved two Proposition 39 general obligation bond measures for Santa Rosa City Schools: Measure I, which provided $175 million for high schools, and Measure L, which allocated $54 million for elementary schools.

The intent of both propositions was to provide a safe and modern learning environment, current and reliable technology, labs, and school repairs.

The district’s 2016 master plan for that money called for areas of Montgomery that were out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act to be brought up to standard. It also called for remediation of leaks and rot, upgrades of substandard student and staff restrooms, and repairs of mechanical and electrical systems that were not functioning.

The total cost for repairs and remodeling was projected to be $98.5 million.

But much of that bond money was diverted for costly HVAC repairs and roof replacements among the district’s 20 schools. Some of the money was also used for the transition to virtual learning when COVID-19 hit, Cavin said.

A state-approved plan also called for $19 million in bonds money for a new two-story building to replace the aging portable classrooms at Montgomery, but it was never completed because replacing the school’s leaking roof cost $18.6 million.

In all, the district spent $22 million at Montgomery, more than any individual school site. In addition to the roof repairs, $3.8 million was spent on other improvements. That figure was $2.3 million less than the amount spent at Maria Carrillo High School, the district’s newest high school.

Students and teachers are hoping the next round of bond money, which was approved by voters last year, will go toward high-priority items, such as creating enough bathrooms or at least fixing them; repairing the sewage system; and replacing the portable classrooms.

Cavin said district officials have not finished a master plan for the new money and don’t have cost estimates. During upcoming board meetings, they will give community members, including the Montgomery High student body leaders, an opportunity to say how they think the bond money should be spent.

Adam Paulson, the school’s principal, was unavailable for an interview, but in a written response to questions from The Press Democrat, he said a lack of state support has been the key issue.

“While this is not typically a principal’s area of expertise, it is commonly known that there is a lack of funding in general for California school districts in relation to facilities as well as other needs,” he said. “The state no longer provides facility specific funding, whereas they used to match 3% of the district budget.”

District maintenance and custodial staff work to make repairs and provide upkeep, he said. But they do not have the resources to complete major repairs at all 27 district sites, he said, adding that major projects are handled by the district.

Paulson said some of the highest-priority items they need going forward are updated restrooms, painting, and concrete and asphalt repair.

Cracked concrete and rotten classrooms

Student leaders, including Peterson, have been collecting feedback from their peers and advocating for long-term fixes.

“Personally, I have been very impressed with these kids,” said Cavin, the associate superintendent.

The students brought many of the issues to the district’s attention in a January school tour, though they noted that the facilities suddenly seemed cleaner than ever when district officials came.

They also organized a slideshow to present to the school board on March 8.

Peterson, Joey Bowser and Ava Parmelee, all of whom are seniors and in student government, gave a Press Democrat reporter and photographer the same tour on Wednesday with the permission of district officials, noting that nothing appeared to have been improved since the January tour.

Students pointed out a wooden step bridge that looks more like a prop from an obstacle course than a bridge.

It was built by students to stay dry when the area in front of one portable classroom floods. It’s falling apart, with missing steps and loose chunks of wood.

"It’s not very well-made,” said a teacher who happened to be passing by.

Just then, Peterson tripped on a loose, splintered piece of wood, dislodging it.

She caught herself, but she and her two student colleagues said it’s just one more example of a student- or custodian-made fix that was supposed to be temporary but turned into a permanent solution.

In the breezeway ceilings, there are two missing sections of metal covers that should be covering electrical wires. At least three birds have found it a good spot to make their nests.

“There’s a lot of things that add up, like these wires,” said Bowser, reaching up to nearly touch a pair of dangling wires.

“We’re not exactly sure — the only way of telling if they’re actually going to hurt is by touching them, which you know, not a lot of people want to do,” he said, shrugging.

They’ve been uncovered for years, he said.

“It’s just a common theme of Montgomery campus,” Parmelee said. “We feel the school community: great. The people, the faculty we have: amazing. But there’s a lot of half-finished projects where the intent was there and then it never got finished and then years go by and it doesn’t happen.”

On the tour, students showed sections of cracked concrete with inch-long gaps that kids and teachers have tripped on, sections of wall boarded up with plywood but not painted, an old burst pipe covered up by a wooden box, and sagging electrical and telephone lines.

Students emphasized that the bathroom situation is the worst, with two of three bathroom areas closed, unless there’s a sports game or district officials are coming in. In those cases, students say, administrators will unlock the “nice” bathrooms.

In the boys bathrooms, plastic cups and leaking milk cartons lie on the ground around the sink and urinals, which don’t have dividers. The toilets are cracked and dirty, and there’s tagging everywhere, even on the ceiling.

A lot of the younger students won’t go to the bathroom because it’s gross and there are no dividers, Bowser said.

In the girls bathroom, tiles are falling from the walls. There’s profanity scrawled in every stall. A newly installed tampon dispenser has never been stocked, Peterson and Parmelee said.

According to California Department of Education’s K-12 toilet requirement summary, schools are required to have one toilet per every 30 female students and one toilet per 50 male students, as well as one urinal per 100 male students.

Montgomery has 1,533 students, meaning they legally should have 26 female toilets and 16 male toilets, Parmelee said.

On most days, there are only seven toilets between the two girls bathrooms, and male students are able to access only 16 urinals and four toilets, the students said.

Outside help

There have been recent repairs. The latest fix, new paint on the boys bathroom stalls, was funded by the New Vintage Church.

“The only help we can get is outsourcing it from other places like churches,” Bowser said.

The school didn’t want to pay for it, he said, because students would vandalize it either way.

“Our students a lot of the time get demonized and stereotyped for what this school has produced, but it’s not necessarily bad kids, it’s people that are in a bad situation so they act upon whatever the situation around them is. … It’s like, you’re not giving anyone a legitimate chance.”

Students said they are tired of being the scapegoat for the lack of maintenance.

“It’s hard to ask students to come here and respect the campus when they’re driving through chain link fence that’s going to get locked and they’re walking into exposed wires, and cracked concrete and rotten classrooms,” Peterson said.

‘We just want a safe place for our kids to learn’

On the day of the sewage leak, parents were sent a message by administrators:

“Yesterday, shortly before school ended, our campus experienced plumbing issues and each of our restrooms was impacted. Plumbing experts assisted our maintenance team and cleared the clogged pipelines. A cleanup crew worked to restore the cleanliness of the restrooms. Once they were finished, we did an extra check to ensure each restroom was ready for the start of school this morning.”

Students and parents said the understated message is one of the signs there’s too much optimism among higher-ups at the school.

“We just want to have a safe place for our kids to learn,” said Jennie Harriman, a parent and co-president of the Montgomery Education Foundation.

She and other parents became worried when they were walking back to the parking lot after soccer practices one day and came across the portable classrooms.

“The siding was peeling off,” said Libby Dalton, the other co-president of the foundation. “You could see mushrooms growing inside the paint peeling open.”

Dalton said her kids run to the bathroom as soon as they get home because they haven’t gone all day long.

Both parents said Montgomery is their neighborhood school, a place where their kids have friends and the teachers are beloved. It’s a place they want to see changed for the better, but it’s also a place where they worry for their kids’ safety and well-being.

They know of students and parents who choose other schools or end up leaving, in part because of the conditions. In a county with declining enrollment, every student matters. With fewer students, there’s less funding for repairs.

“Our No. 1 concern is the safety of the kids there and that they’re learning,” Harriman said. “Those two things have to be hand in hand.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8531 or On Twitter @alana_minkler.

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