When school campuses closed due to Coronavirus, construction picked up the pace.
It’s hard to see the silver lining in the pandemic shutdowns across the schools of Los Angeles Unified School District, but there was one. When students went home in March 2020, administrators worked with contractors to move schedules forward, to reconstruct large portions of campuses in a comprehensive modernization program.
Without students and staff on site, hundreds of crews from Building Trades local affiliated unions took the opportunity to rebuild facilities across the city.
Looking back from the perspective of February 2022 with the Omicron variant, it’s clear that following safety procedures helped to keep members on the job, then and now.
The work continues, all under a Project Stabilization Agreement between LAUSD and the LA/Orange Countiesd Building and Construction Trades Council. The PSA started in 1999 and has been renewed several times.
It sets targets to hire residents of the district, which is the second-largest in the nation.
“We are very proud of our construction program, which provides the much-needed modern facilities for students and jobs for the local community,” Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter said.
“Building Trades News” took a field trip in early July 2020 to John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley; Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies in Tarzana; and Calabash Charter Academy in Woodland Hills.
Good to be Back
At John Francis, Laborers from Local 300, fully covered in white hazmat suits, wrapped piping that had been installed in the 1950s and was recently excavated. The pipes contain asbestos. Outdated and hazardous materials could have slowed construction if not discovered as soon as they were.
Like many workers at the site, Local 300 journeyman Phillip Valenzuela lives in the San Fernando Valley. And he has a special connection to John Francis High School: He graduated from here in the class of ’85. “I love it here,” Valenzuela said. “It’s so good to be back. I got on the phone with my sister just to tell her I was at that gate where we used to hang out. I remember that gate.
“I’m jazzed more than you know,” added Valenzuela, 53. He removes his mask to eat his lunch, revealing a large grin. “I have six children. Being able to provide them a house, education, survival—it’s everything. God is great to me. I love life. I love the union.”
Journeyman excavator Raphael Solorio of Operating Engineers Local 12 said he appreciates his 15-minute commute to the worksite.
With a hard-nosed claw called a pig crusher, Solorio ground the hardscape of a parking lot into a growing pile. The earth shakes for hundreds of yards as he stomps it.
The material would then be recycled at a Vulcan Materials facility in Sun Valley.
“I’ll go wherever I’m needed,” Solorio said. “But I like this school—no students, and a nice day.”
LAUSD construction manager Ed Khachatourian works closely with the general contractor, Bernards, the district and the local unions to enforce the local hire provisions.
“If you are asking about the economic importance, that is the most important aspect: community employment,” Khachatourian said. “We are checking and monitoring this regularly.”
The morning sun wasn’t yet beating down on Roofers when they arrived at 6 am. Within a couple of hours, though, it had climbed above the members of Roofers & Waterproofers Local 36 on the job for Letner Roofing.
“If you can’t take the heat, you won’t last here,” Local 36 foreman Christian Alvarez said. “We lose a lot of people in the summer.”
For those who can last, though, work is plentiful. Oscar Aguilar, a Local 36 apprentice, installed a new decking material above upgraded classrooms. The 30-year-old said solar panels from many years before leaked water through the roof. The panels were removed and the roofs reconstructed.
Nearby, journeyman Painter Philip Amaro from IUPAT DC 36, Local 1036 spray-painted the outdoor hallways leading to classrooms. He said the yellow color was “loud,” but it is one of the school’s two official colors, along with bright blue.
When the Project Stabilization Agreement started, it accomplished the building of 131 new schools and expansion of 65 others.
Now, the emphasis is on large-scale renovations of campuses from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
About 20 minutes from Sun Valley, LAUSD is reshaping all major buildings at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, built in 1981 in Tarzana.
Trades members built outdoor classrooms in courtyards. The innovative design is the first in LAUSD, project manager David Anderson said. Now that school is back in session, it will help with “social distancing” and outdoor meetings
Pipes and electrical systems that once hung on old roofs are being rerouted underground. The former gym had to be covered in plastic tarps when asbestos was discovered in roofing material, and the concrete structure was set to be demolished.
A new gym is a centerpiece of the campus.
“Any Laker would be happy to train in this facility,” said the site safety manager, Fred Dailey.
They’d like the safety standards, too. Dailey said his contractors installed hand-washing stations and warning signs. “No one has gone home sick.”
Tube-shaped skylights bring in the reflection of the strong Valley sunlight onto the basketball courts, which will reduce lighting bills.
The Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies is the largest of the three revitalization projects under way on the tour. Money for the work was raised by the $7 billion Measure Q, passed by Los Angeles voters in 2008
The Building Trades strongly support bond measures for school construction that will be under a labor agreement.
Most of the five-acre Tarzana campus is being reconstructed. The site boasts 12 active construction sites including the new gym, science labs and elementary building.
At Calabash Charter Academy, Building Trades members are replacing eight temporary classrooms, setting up a new track, planting 7,800 shrubs and flowers, and repaving the campus with 13 different solar-reflective colors.
Local 433 Iron Workers were setting, measuring and marking spots where their beams would rise. Journeyman Hernan Maldonado worked with his apprentice Juan Valtierra erecting iron, welding and grinding.
“So far, everything is good,” Maldonado said. “The general contractor is working well with us.”
Calabash’s senior project manager Tim Milstead said that during the pandemic, LAUSD was able to focus on critical repair and accessibility projects.
“Those comprehensive modernizations are to take a holistic look at our campus.” Milstead said.