On the second day of the school year, Superintendent Cindy Marten let me tag along with her on a visit to San Diego High School.

It was still early in the day, just after 10, and already the classrooms were stifling. Marten was there for a school visit. So while she shadowed her area superintendent, who in turn shadowed the school principals, my plan was to shadow Marten.

As we dipped in and out of classrooms, sweat dripped onto my notebook and bled my writing. The air was thick and smelled like a musty gym shirt. I spent only a few minutes at a time in classrooms. I didn’t want to imagine what it was like for kids or teachers who cook in those hotboxes for an entire day.

Learning Curve-01On the one hand, weather is about the most clichéd thing to ever grumble about. On the other, lack of air conditioning in classrooms raises serious concerns for health and the ethical treatment of kids.

Earlier this month, parents posted pictures on social media showing thermometers inside classrooms that registered close to 100 degrees.

“I’m not taking [my kids to school] tomorrow,” one mom told NBC. “The district can eat it.”

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

In 2008, and again in 2012, voters approved construction bonds that together would give the district $5 billion to spend on things like repairs, renovations and air conditioning.

Responding to community pressure, in 2013 school board members bumped air conditioning up the project list and promised to cool 2,000 of the hottest classrooms. The district was broken into three zones: coastal, central and inland. The latter, hottest two, would see air conditioning. Schools in coastal zones – though they might get toasty – aren’t scheduled for AC.

And the district has spent on this initiative – about $93 million, as of last spring. But classrooms in San Diego High, and many others, haven’t seen the benefits.

The whole time I toured the school, I wondered if the district might be able to put AC in more classrooms had they not spent elsewhere – say, for example, on multi-million dollar stadiums.

That’s a tricky one to answer. That is, even without the stadiums, we can’t say the district would have necessarily installed air conditioning in more schools.

But it does beg a question I can answer, one that was tweeted this week by VOSD-supporter Andy Kopp.

Question: What rationale is San Diego Unified using to justify spending millions on football stadiums? – Andy Kopp, reader (I paraphrased the question)

When we dug into this issue last spring, the district had spent $107 million on athletic facilities – about $14 million more than it had spent on air conditioning.

After we found seemingly routine repairs — like a leaky ceiling at Hoover High – had been put on the backburner while spending on stadiums and athletic facilities took precedence, we pressed district officials for an explanation.

Here are five reasons the district has given for why it has prioritized stadiums.


This is the first reason listed, and the one that’s easiest to swallow. Because some schools have nice stadiums, all schools should have nice stadiums.

This seems fair and straightforward. But then again, there are also disparities between schools in the quality of their classrooms – things that more directly impact teaching, learning, and safety. We found the doors and windows were so old at Hoover High, for example, maintenance staff couldn’t properly secure the building from break-ins at night.

Curb Appeal

You had to love former trustee Scott Barnett – his quotes were always colorful and impolitic. He gave us his rationale straight. Here, he reminds us that priorities are set by school board members, and school board members are politicians:

“The things that people want to prioritize aren’t always the things we need to prioritize,” Barnett said. “It’s about what the parents want and what the politicians want. Look, you can’t do a ribbon-cutting on new plumbing, right? But you can do it on a new stadium.”

Andy Berg, chair of the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee that was appointed to monitor bond projects, echoed Barnett:

“Repairs aren’t sexy. Stadiums are sexy,” he said. Berg was a major supporter of Proposition Z, which raised property taxes $66 for every $100,000 of property value someone owns in the school district’s boundaries.

Stadiums Raise Test Scores

Berg went further still, suggesting that cool facilities help kids feel better about their schools, which in turn ups their academic performance.

If you take the asbestos out of the wall, do kids feel any better about where they go to school? But if they have a new stadium, that means something. Kids feel a connection to their school. They take pride in their surroundings, they feel more comfortable, which leads to better test scores,” Berg said.

It’s tempting to snark this argument, but in a 2011 board presentation, the district pointed to research that showed better facilities correlate to higher academic performance, when students’ socioeconomic statuses are controlled.

And at the very least, the district has evidence to suggest better facilities help lure parents and students.

The wrench in this theory, of course, is Lincoln High. (Sorry, Hornets). Academics there have been shaky since 2007, when it reopened with a sparkling $129 million campus, including a new stadium.

People With Disabilities

If we’re going to have stadiums, they need to be wheelchair accessible. And as long as we’re making stadium renovations, we might as well go all in.

This is also a defensible argument. But if the only objective was to make stadiums more accessible, it would spend a lot less money. The stadium at Mission Bay High cost the district $11 million.


This is one of my favorites. When I spoke to Lee Dulgeroff, the district’s facilities planning and construction officer, he mentioned that stadiums aren’t just places for football games. They’re also large gathering places for assemblies and graduation ceremonies. In that respect, they need to be accessible to everyone.

“You don’t know who’s going to arrive in a large assembly space,” Dulgeroff said. “It could be somebody’s grandmother, grandfather, mom, dad or a veteran returning home from war.”

In short, it’s downright un-American of you to question bond spending.

Ed Reads of The Week

Howard Blume was out with a good scoop this week after he obtained a memo outlining the Broad Foundation’s plan to greatly expand charter schools in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials took exception to the idea their students would be better served in charter schools, and viewed the plan as an attack on their work. The plan, ambitious in scope, would double the number of charter schools in a city that already has more than anywhere else in the country.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a layered man. On the basketball court, he’s known as Cobra. He splits the political middle, seemingly appeasing nobody. The loyalty – and vitriol – he inspires brings people to tears (weirdly, multiple times in this article).

It’s a great profile, one which describes the warfare that lines the trenches of education-policy dealings.

Some of his reforms won’t stand the test of time. Which makes me wonder if the net gain in education is whatever is left over when the current administration, superintendent or principal undoes the work of his predecessor.

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, News, School Bonds, The Learning Curve

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Mario,  In your description of your "tag along" with Supt. Marten you describe stifling classrooms that are not conducive to attendance, much less learning.  I don't have air conditioning either, because I chose not to have it when I built my house near the beach.  The current period has been the lengthiest heat/humidity combination I've experience in my 28 years in San Diego, largely because there's been so little breeze.  Fans have been my salvation.

    Tell me they at least are using fans in classrooms!

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Unfortunately, our education system has been taken over by two ugly trends that don't help students learn. School board members these days are elected using campaigns primarily funded by real estate developers and construction contractors, who get them elected with the promise to divert school bond money to their financial supporters. For example, San Diego State University used to be a relatively small campus focused on educating students. Over the last two decades it has exploded with real estate projects and new buildings created more to benefit the companies who build structures than SDSU students. Building more buildings does not equate better educational opportunities for students. The second trend is skyrocketing salaries and benefit package for school district and university administrators. Once the federal government began offering student loans, the school administrators used the opportunity to jack up school expenses and costs, including lining their own pockets. They have also used various tactics to divert bond money to pay more money to teachers and keep the unions happy. In the meantime, students and the quality of their education gets ignored or paid lip service. Building new stadiums will make the contractors more money than maintaining existing buildings, even though doing so betrays voters who voted for the bonds. .

    francesca subscriber


    What I would like to know more about is Andy Berg, chair of the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee.

    I find his statement about ribbon cutting at stadiums being better for politicians than fixing plumbing, very offensive.  If he's providing oversight, shouldn't he be thinking of the children's welfare, not the politicians?

    Andy Berg...do you know any more about him?  I see that he is boss of the National Electrical Contractors Association.  Could there be a conflict of interest in his control of bond spending?  I also see that he was on a similar bond oversight committee in Poway Unified School District.  Doesn't sound that "independent" to me.  Did I also see that he was doing some monkey business with Gaffen, Ursula Kroemer's former employer?

    I'm not sure if any of this would affect his building of stadiums, before air conditioning....Just would like to know more about this very connected man.

    FrontPorch subscriber

    Sometimes I am so disappointed in VOSD coverage of an issue like this.  I donate to your journalistic enterprise, and it is unsettling to see that you have not looked under the covers of this issue.  You have not examined the so-called studies alluded to by the school district suggesting that better stadiums cause better learning.  You have not examined what is needed at each of the schools calling for repairs and air-conditioning.  You have not gone looking for the real costs associated with loss of attendance or other consequences of inattention to essential repairs.  You are providing a little list summarizing the talking points of the district and your airy questions about them, with absolutely no determination to get to the bottom of things.  I thought that is what VOSD was all about.  I am beginning to think I was wrong.

    EducatedMom subscribermember

    @FrontPorch For the record, I wasn't blasting Mario for not reading the report--I was blasting the district for using a report that they clearly hadn't read or not providing actual data to back their claim.

    Some of what you're asking Mario to do would be exceedingly difficult because the district doesn't keep records for items such as "real costs associated with loss of attendance or other consequence of inattention to essential repairs" as there is no meaningful way to measure why a student stays home (other than if s/he is sick and the parent calls in to say that).  All one could say is how much income from the state is lost for every day a student stays home (which also varies somewhat by the grade level of the student).  For "what is needed at each of the schools calling for repairs and AC," the Prop S and Prop Z lists reflect (from my experience) generally what the principal has asked for, which is by no means a comprehensive list of what needs to be done at a school site.  The only district-wide study conducted has been on what is needed for "safety" upgrades.  But in that, we're really talking about security--like fencing and a loudspeaker system--not whether the stairs to the bathrooms have wood rot.  This list will likely appear in an upcoming Board of Ed meeting for funding (I haven't looked at the board docs for Tuesday's meeting yet but it could be there).  And remember, compiling any information that exists is daunting, with 230+ schools.  

    So cut him a little slack.  At least he's highlighting the issue that many of us have been grumbling about for some time.

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    Thanks, @EducatedMom. That was nice of you. @FrontPorch, I think what you're asking for is more substance. That's fair. 

    For the purposes of this series, The Learning Curve, I try to keep the posts light, (relatively) short, and focused on a specific question sent in by readers. 

    I did look at bond spending a lot more thoroughly last spring. A colleague and I found, for example that asbestos removal -- which was highlighted by bond supporters as a reason to vote for it -- wasn't being documented. In some cases, it wasn't removed at all. Workers simply covered the flooring with a layer of carpet. It's not a health concern, apparently, and never really was. http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/education/asbestos-is-no-longer-san-diego-unifieds-public-enemy-no-1/

    We also looked at the work that wasn't being done at Hoover High, Mission Bay High, and other schools -- even though they got new stadiums. http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/education/with-tax-hikes-sd-schools-put-stadium-spending-above-classrooms/

    @EducatedMom is right: it would take an incredible amount of work to personally inventory the work at 150 school sites. There is, however, a Facility Conditions Index which itemizes needed repairs at each school. I can find that for you if you're genuinely curious. 

    obboy13 subscriber

    @Mario Koran @FrontPorch Mario, keep doing what you're doing, the reporting so far is enlightening and  persuasive.  

    The only other advice I'd offer is that you don't work for FrontPorch.  You have successfully raised the broad issue of the Board's spending priorities and convinced the majority of your readers that those priorities are seriously flawed.  If FrontPorch needs additional convincing, or desires to delve deeper into the source documents let him do his own work.  I too donate to VOSD, because I support the work you folks are doing; not because I expect VOSD to be my own personal investigative staff.  To put a point on it, since I'm a contributor, would you come over and clean my windows?   

    EducatedMom subscribermember

    Scott Barnett understands it best:  Put in a stadium, a new Career and Technical Education building or a new turf field, and you have two photo-ops (the requisite "groundbreaking" shot with shovel in hand and hardhats and the ribbon cutting at completion).  There's no photo-ops for air conditioning or fixing decrepit bathrooms or removal of rodent nests from building insulation.  This district has aging classrooms that have been on the "whole site renovation" list for many years, only to be shoved aside to deal with something that creates better photo-ops. 

    Really, it's about priorities, and I wonder just how many folks on the bond oversight committee are actually parents, teachers, or administrators in schools with firsthand knowledge of what needs to be done at school sites. 

    I understand the equity piece, but let's start prioritizing the classrooms over the exterior.  A "quality school" isn't a building with a synthetic turf field or new football stadium and a new paint job but one where the students do well academically and have the skills needed to succeed in college and career.  It's challenging to do well academically in aging, cramped, hot classrooms.

    EducatedMom subscribermember

    Ha! I actually read the report in the link, which is reportedly the data used to justify the football stadium and other ribbon-cutting improvements.  From page 1 of the report: "Among the influential features and components are those impacting temperature, lighting, acoustics, and age.  Research has found a negative impact upon student performance in buildings where deficiencies in any of these features exist."

    The report goes on in more detail about these components, noting that reading and mathematics skills dropped when the temperature in the classroom was above 74 degrees. Hmm...

    Guess what's not in the report?  Any mention of new football stadiums or turf fields and their impact on student achievement.  The report was all about the state of school classroom buildings.

    obboy13 subscriber

    Another great investigative piece Mario, although it's becoming more and more obvious that SDUSD is the low hanging fruit of inept local elected Boards and senior administration.  

    Also, I'm curious.  Do you think Cindy Marten will be allowing you to shadow her again anytime soon? 

    Dennis subscriber

    Some of our high school fields looked like **itholes. They needed to be upgraded. Nothing like stepping in a hole and tearing ligaments in your ankle or knee.

    Now it is time to turf the rest of the DG fields in our middle/elementary schools. Only in SDUSD: Where prison yards look better than our schools play fields.

    Air conditioners are very useful, for a few weeks of the school year at best. It is below 60...brr to cold. It is above 90...ohh to hot....we are so spoiled in SD.

    SherryS subscriber

    We got better results where I grew up in Pennsylvania where each "cluster" was its own school district. Board members were generally parents of students in the school district, they were our neighbors and were accessible and accountable. Board meetings were easy to attend because they were in our neighborhoods. If the Board had spent money on stadiums before air conditioning, parents would not need an investigative news source to tell them and those board members would not serve long.

    DavidM subscriber

    Anyone else feel lied to?  Some time in the next five to ten years, when another bond issue is on the ballot, the successors of all the people making poor decisions will face the backlash of opposition based on "Didn't we already approve that?"  

    My alma mater has a nice new stadium; that's great, but that's not what I was voting for.

    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    re the research that "better facilities correlate to higher academic performance".  I skimmed the linked paper's abstract and introduction and did not see any reference to the positive effects of stadiums.  It did say 

    "Among the influential features and components are those impacting temperature, lighting, acoustics and age."

    Was the board presentation given with a straight face?