New $38 million Evergreen building may be unsafe

November 23, 2010 7:13:12 PM PST
Only one year after opening a brand new arts building on the Evergreen Community College campus, there are concerns that parts of it are not safe.

This is the same district the I-Team found misspending your tax dollars last fall on staff perks and exotic travel. Back then, administrators pointed to this building as a great example of what they had done right. But now there are concerns that the building has problems and even made one instructor sick. It is just the latest episode for a district that has become known for mismanagement.

One year ago, San Jose Evergreen Community College District couldn't get enough attention for their brand new $38 million Center for the Arts.

"We're going to become a destination for the arts in this area," said Evergreen president David Wain Coon.

Now they're getting attention they don't want.

"The design of the building, it just seems really poor," said student Danielle Wong. "It just seems like it was rushed."

"With the budget cuts and having everything cut, it's just a waste," said student King Javier. "I mean, it might as well be a big paperweight or something."

Students say there aren't enough classes left to fill the building. And what's worse, some of the classes they did have this semester were cut because they weren't safe.

Last spring a welding instructor started to complain that he was getting sick breathing fumes in his jewelry class. It continued into this semester, prompting the college to get an outside safety and health audit on the new building. The results? Fifty Cal/OSHA safety violations and one fire department violation, including classrooms not equipped to handle hazardous materials students use in courses, and most significantly, serious ventilation problems in the sick teachers' rooms.

This is the scene now -- six empty classrooms closed indefinitely, 60 students without classes, and an instructor out on workers comp.

The district board is ultimately responsible for oversight on big projects like this. Board members were out front and all smiles at the opening last fall. But when the I-Team showed up at the board meeting this month, they didn't want to talk about the new building.

"Well, I don't have all the facts in front of me," said board president Balbihr Dhillion.

The district's new chancellor, Rita Cepeta, tells the I-Team she wants transparency in her district. We reminded her about the several stories we've done about the lack of oversight in the district and asked her if this was another example of that.

"You know, I know that you have ,and I know that our board has taken not just your concerns, actually, you're representing taxpayers and the public that views your programs, very, absolutely to heart," said Cepeta.

Cepeta says she has already figured out one thing that went wrong during construction -- no one ever asked the instructors what they needed in the new building.

"There were some things that the faculty and staff needed to do that weren't clearly communicated to the builders," she said. "There were some things we did clearly communicate and the architects didn't pay close attention."

"When a $30 million building is built and it doesn't meet the needs of what it was promised to do, somebody has got to answer the question -- how did this happen? And why did it happen?" said district watchdog Steve Kline.

This is especially troubling to Kline who ran a campaign against Prop G in San Jose this past November. But the voters passed it, giving the district another $268 million bond to do more construction.

"And so if we just sort of just sweep this under the rug, not take a hard look at how this happened, we might as well take all of the rest of the money and throw it away again," he said.

For now, it's the students who are paying the price.

"Now we're taking a bunch of steps back to make the corrections that should have been fixed before it was all done," said student Emil Valencia.

"Maybe it would have taken a little longer, but it would have been a better investment and we'd still have our classes because these classes mean a lot to us," said student Stephanie Lawson.

Teachers and students the I-Team talked to off-camera told us about major flooding that knocked out power, electric piano classes with no sound systems, and tiny dance studios that leave half the class waiting outside for a turn. The district says it will share the cost of fixing the welding rooms with the contractor. That repair will start at $50,000.


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