Still under construction

More than two years in, new buildings have yet to be occupied.

Still under construction

Elizabeth Posey, Art Director


The Measure AA construction and its delays were a “necessary evil” for English teacher Melanie Vega and many others on campus, but as the school year comes to an end, returning students and teachers are excited to put the new facilities into use.

For Branham’s construction, few obstacles proved more serious than the delay of the pipe removal for which PG&E was responsible. The wait that began in December 2018, according to Principal Cheryl Lawton, and cost the school thousands of dollars, preventing progress in the completion of the new buildings.

Vega was inspired by her sophomores to create an assignment to write argumentative letters to PG&E to hasten the pipe’s removal. The classes faced disappointment multiple times as they and Vega were promised to move into the new rooms but were notified that the pipe had not yet been taken care of.

“I’m highly, personally annoyed, knowing that aspects of the construction were delayed specifically due to them not coming out,” said Vega.

Three weeks ago, her English two classes were in the midst of their Animal Farm unit, studying rhetorical devices. Students in Vega’s class saw this as an opportunity to write letters to PG&E and the idea quickly developed into a lesson in argument writing to address a specific audience.

“How do you make sure someone at PG&E is actually going to start reading your letter and be like ‘oh wow’ and engage with it?” Vega said.

While they used differing examples, students urged the ultimate message that PG&E’s failure to replace the gas line was a disruption and a disappointment to them.

Sophomore Sean Lim explained how the noise of construction was unwelcome while his grade took the PSAT “While taking this crucial exam, we were forced to pack into small rooms where we were disrupted by the cacophony of construction noises booming outside our window,” he wrote in his letter.

Megan Nakagawa, another sophomore in Vega’s class wrote that “the delayed construction is affecting Branham’s educational environment. It affects students. It affects teachers. It affects administration. It affects parents. It affects other schools.”

Once done, Lawton emailed the letters directly to the Branham PG&E correspondent. According to the principal, PG&E responded quickly but with a defensive message, listing excuses and preoccupations that prevented their work at Branham. Nevertheless, this was a positive step considering that, previously, PG&E had given Lawton and those involved what Vega describes as “radio silence.”

Andrea Ciplickas, CEO of the CUHSD Education Foundation, also hand-delivered these letters to the PG&E building.

“It’s really important, whether someone’s going to listen to you or not, to actually take the chance and do it, because not acting and not saying anything guarantees you will not get a response,” said Vega.

Whether or not PG&E responded, Vega considers this lesson a success for her students in exercising their ability to confront issues that affect their lives and the community.

The company was scheduled to remove the pipe May 17 after a long waiting period. While this pipe was a source of frustration for those involved in Branham’s construction site, teachers and administration alike are relieved to put the struggle behind them and move into the new rooms.

A brief history of Measure AA

Although the recent year’s construction was burdensome to students and administration irritated by the delay of the pipe, the Measure AA funded construction began on a much more hopeful note.  

Since the idea’s conception in the summer of 2016, district construction funding gained tremendous support in the community.

When Principal Cheryl Lawton was hired in 2016, worked closely with teachers, students, and parents to address the needs of the campus through the measure AA bond.

The original goal for the bond was to provide money to construct new buildings, improve the safety of existing buildings and provide updates that allow students to remain competitive in the area. Now, some of these ideas have become realities on campus. From the beginning, there was little doubt that CUHSD would not receive the funds.

“By the time it passed, we already knew what type of buildings we were looking at. We had a whole general plan in place,” Lawton said.

That fall had been a busy one for the recently established Facilities Committee. In August 2016, teachers, students, staff and community members from all sites of construction in the district met for a preliminary discussion of wants and needs for each school.

Lawton hoped that Branham would receive greater funding than other sites in the district. Because of the school’s shut down in the 1990s, updates had been made to other schools in the district leaving Branham’s facilities to remain the more outdated ones across the district. For this reason, more bond money was originally allocated to Branham’s budget.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, unfortunately,” Lawton said. “There was a lot of pushback” on behalf of other schools in the district.

Eventually each school’s funding was distributed in nearly even amounts, Branham still given more to update its facilities.

Money, money, money

According to Nancy Pfeiffer-Torres, the district’s Assistant Superintendent of Business Services, Branham lost a significant portion of its land after Highway 85, completed in 1994, split the campus. For one of the fastest growing schools in the district, Branham has the least area and class space to hold its students.

The two-story classrooms — costing nearly $45 million, the most expensive component of Branham’s campus renovations — allow higher density learning environments to accommodate the increasing class sizes. This will also create more common spaces for students.

Construction, however, did not go on without some obstacles. The district claims that the misplaced gas line PG&E promised to remove and replace took a two year request and $600,000 in loss for the company to finally fix the situation.

“Some of our seniors that are graduating won’t be able to experience taking classes in these new buildings” said Pfeiffer “And that’s what caused the most frustration, because we had every intent for them to be able to experience that and we were just not able to.”

One crucial tool that allows school sites to compensate for the bond money lost is a safety net of $2 million in case of unforeseen conditions. PG&E was covered because of this contingency; however, Pfeiffer said that the district is currently filing a claim with the company to recover some funds. She is unsure if the plan will end in success, considering that PG&E is filing for bankruptcy.

The contingency has helped in other cases as well. Setbacks when finding sewer lines during pool construction also required Branham to dip into its $2 million.

Looking forward

Although significant progress has been made on the facilities with Measure AA funding, Lawton foresees more changes down the road. Administration hopes for another bond measure to be introduced in 2022, allowing schools to make more necessary adaptations to accommodate student needs and class sizes.

Among many possibilities for growth, Lawton imagines a student union in the area of the cafeteria including meeting spaces and a media center, saying that architects are already drawing new plans for a renovation to the cafeteria space where she predicts the union would go. She believes that this may give an incentive for community members turn out at the polls like they did in 2016 for the most recent bond.

At this point in time, most proposals for the future are speculative and depend on how pragmatic choices may be prioritized as they did for this round of funding.