Special Report: Modesto’s Gregori High ready to open

When it was pitched to Modesto school bond voters in 2001, Gregori High School was supposed to cost $66 million and open by 2006.

But Gregori's price tag will hit $140.7 million by the time it finally opens this August. That's double the promised price, and Modesto City Schools still is arranging funding to pay for it.

The 80-acre campus east of Salida cost 40 percent more than its architectural twin, Enochs High, which opened four years ago in Modesto.

Every aspect of building Gregori was significantly more expensive than Enochs, despite the fact their core designs are essentially identical.

Superintendent Arturo Flores defends the district's construction decisions.

"We spent what needed to be spent on the development of that school," said Flores, who took over as Modesto City Schools' superintendent in 2007. "This is a fine school for a community that sorely needed it."

What boosted Gregori's cost was not construction overruns, but extra expenses caused primarily by its location. It was built on agricultural land beyond the reach of existing water or sewer services or adequate roads. It is miles away from where most Salida students live, which is west of Highway 99.

"It was poor planning to put it on that site. It was built in the wrong location," said Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who was on the committee that promoted the 2001 school bond. "Taxpayers just got ripped off on a colossal scale."

DeMartini and others blame Gregori's location for pushing up the school's cost.

The district bought the one-time peach orchard in 2005 at the peak of the real estate market, paying nearly $7.75 million. That was more than double what it paid for Enochs High's 80 acres.

Because Gregori was built in an agricultural area served by country roads, the district had to spend an additional $7.42 million to widen Dale and Stoddard roads and extend Pirrone Road, and for other traffic improvements.

A county public works official contends the school district owes $3.4 million to $9 million more to help build a freeway interchange, but he said school officials have refused to pay.

Road costs were surprise

When it picked Gregori's site, the school district didn't expect roads to cost so much, according to Debbe Bailey. She is the former deputy superintendent who oversaw the the Gregori project until last year, when the final year of her employment contract was bought out after a public dispute with Flores.

"There was development planned for that whole area," said Bailey, noting how the site had been part of Stanislaus County's Salida community development plan. She said the district expected water and sewer services to be extended to the site because developments -- including houses -- were planned for the area.

DeMartini said that's not true. He said he worked on the Salida community plan, and the Gregori site was designated for a business park because soil in that region was too contaminated for housing.

The Salida development plan and its environmental impact report was thrown out in 2002 by the courts. That delayed Gregori's construction and ultimately changed the public utilities available on that site.

"The city of Modesto refused to serve the school," Bailey said.

Despite the lack of sewer or water, Modesto's school board voted unanimously in 2005 to buy the property from the Derk Van Konynenburg family.

The result was costly.

"We had to create our own water system," said Duane Wolterstorff, Modesto City Schools' manager of fiscal support services. That, in turn, increased design and construction costs.

The water well cost $1.45 million and the water distribution system upgrades tacked on an additional $600,000.

The well had to be dug 360 feet to hit clean water. Then water tanks, fire suppression pumps and a big backup generator had to be installed to protect the school during power blackouts.

Gregori essentially will run its own water district.

"We won't pay for water, but we will have increased electrical costs to pump it," Wolterstorff said.

Twice the government fees

The high school, fortunately, did not have to create its own sewer system, but it did pay a steep fee to get annexed into Salida's sanitary district. Compared with Enochs, Gregori paid twice as much in such government fees -- more than $1 million total.

Another costly result of putting Gregori on ag land was more than $2 million in environmental cleanup costs caused by arsenic, pesticides and gasoline in the soil. The district must continue paying to monitor that pollution mitigation effort.

"We hadn't expected the soil and groundwater cleanup, since all the earlier tests showed only minor contamination. Those tests were overseen by the state, and then they asked for more tests that led to a major soil removal and ongoing monitoring requirement," Bailey explained.

Not everyone was surprised there were soil problems.

"Anybody who grew up in that side of Modesto knew that land was polluted," said Kim Spina, president of the Modesto City Schools Board of Education. "It was a huge, huge mistake to build there."

Spina and DeMartini say the former Shell Agricultural Chemical Co. lab on the other side of Stoddard Road contributed to environmental concerns for the entire area.

DeMartini said housing developers encouraged the school district to buy the Gregori site because they wanted to preserve unpolluted property closer to Salida for future housing tracts.

"They shoved that school out of town on contaminated land in an industrial park so they could build more houses," charged DeMartini.

'Begged' to pick other site

Had Gregori been located closer to a developed area, whether Salida or Modesto, many of the extra expenses to build the campus might have been avoided.

"We almost begged them to choose another site. The site never made sense, and we kept bringing that up," said John DeAngelis, an architect who served on Modesto City Schools' bond oversight committee from 2001 to 2003.

That committee was supposed to make sure the $65 million high school construction bond was spent responsibly. Voters were told that half the bond would go toward building Enochs, and the other half toward Gregori. State grants, developer fees and Mello-Roos property taxes also would be used.

According to DeAngelis, he and other bond oversight committee members didn't think the relatively remote location at Stoddard and Pirrone roads was a good choice, but the district's school board disagreed.

"They just seemed to lock into that site so solidly and quickly," DeAngelis said.

Longtime school board member Cindy Marks said members chose the site in August 2002 after two years of study. She acknowledged that Stanislaus County officials by then had designated the site as part of a business park, but that was a change from previous plans.

"The county asked us to relocate the high school, but we had already invested $400,000 in environmental studies for the site," explained Marks, noting how difficult state regulations make it to create a campus. "We had put a lot of time and energy into this plan."

In hindsight, Marks said, she wishes that the county and school district staffs had communicated better about Gregori.

Stanislaus County Public Works Director Matt Ma- chado wishes the school district would communicate better with his staff right now. Machado said the district was supposed to have signed an agreement last year to pay $3.4 million to $9 million to mitigate the traffic problems Gregori will cause.

"They will not formulate any kind of agreement with the county. They say they don't have the money, so they're not going to pay," said Machado, who insists Gregori's environmental impact report requires that the district pay its share for new Highway 99 interchanges. "There are about 16 mitigation measures they're supposed to comply with, but they refuse."

Once Gregori's enrollment hits 1,200 students -- which is expected in 2011 -- Machado said the school must pay the county $3.4 million. By the time it reaches capacity, he said $9 million will be due.

That money is needed to pay for part of the new Kiernan Road-Highway 99 interchange, which should start construction in 2012.

Flores said the school district is willing "to pay for its fair share of certain public infrastructure costs." But apparently there's disagreement about what's still owed.

"Modesto City Schools has already built and paid for several million of dollars for roadway improvements," Flores said in a written statement. "In this era of budgetary concerns, Modesto City Schools needs to be careful not to pay more than its fair share of the public infrastructure shortfalls currently facing Stanislaus County."

Panel 'had no authority'

Such school construction costs were supposed to be monitored by the school bond oversight committee, but DeAngelis felt the committee he served on "really had no authority to do anything."

The district disbanded the committee in spring of 2007, before Gregori's construction contracts were awarded.

"To be honest, the citizens' oversight committee was pretty useless. It didn't have any teeth. It was pretty much just for show," DeAngelis said. "Anytime we suggested ways to save money, they wouldn't listen. We tried looking at the plans and tried to save money, but they didn't want to hear it."

Leaders of the Modesto Teachers Association also felt their concerns about Gregori's cost were ignored.

"To build a $140 million high school is pretty absurd," said Barney Hale, the teachers union's executive director. "As the economy got worse, they never really looked at cutting back. ... The school board members put their head in the sand about this over five years ago."

Hale said the union repeatedly objected to the costs being racked up for Gregori and Enochs, but former district Superintendent Jim Enochs "wanted these new schools to be first rate, and he was going to do anything he could to make it happen."

Enochs, who retired three years ago, remembers things differently.

"The teachers union complained very stridently about the overcrowding in the schools," said Enochs, who was superintendent for 21 years. He said union members campaigned for the district's bond effort to build the two high schools.

A look at other schools

Enochs said the district wanted to build on the east side of Highway 99. However, he cannot recall all the specific reasons the Gregori site was selected. He said the district did attempt to reduce construction costs by using the same design for both campuses, but material expenses for concrete and steel soared because of demand from China.

Some other California high schools built at the same time as Gregori cost less and have more amenities. Gregori has a 2,500-student capacity, no auditorium, no football stadium and no pool.

Los Banos will open Pacheco High this August for about $63 million. It can handle 1,800 students, and it includes a football stadium, pool and auditorium.

Also opening in August will be American Canyon High in Napa County, which cost $160 million. It can hold 2,200 students and has a football stadium with an artificial turf field, pool and auditorium. It also has a photovoltaic solar-power-generating system to provide all its electrical needs, a geothermal system to provide all its heating and cooling, and an adjoining 300-acre environmental preserve to protect the red-legged frog.

DeMartini said some school districts know how to build schools right. Ceres passed a school bond in 2001 just like Modesto, but he said it built Central Valley High "on time and under budget." That $53 million, 54-acre campus for 1,500 students opened in 2005.

"It's an insult to taxpayers what Gregori High School cost," DeMartini said.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti

can be reached at or 578-2196.

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