Erick Lemus/Courier Dr. Rajen Vurdien at the Board of Trustees meeting at Pasadena City College on Thursday, February 22, 2018.
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The progress to get work done on the Armen Sarafian Hall (also known as the U building) has been dealt a number of blows in recent weeks. The full support of the project from the government has been derailed, and the school is hoping that the state will change its mind before the May Revise when the governor’s proposed budget from January gets an update before it is signed into law by the end of June.

During the President’s Report segment of the Academic Senate (AS) meeting at the end of last month, AS president Valerie Foster delivered the news that California governor Jerry Brown changed his mind about funding the entire U building project. According to Foster, Brown wanted the school to match the funds by half ($38 million – which includes cost escalations), but since the school didn’t have the funds to match the new proposal, the budget will be put on hold – again.

“We were going to get quite a bit of money to redo the building, but the governor changed his mind and now wants us to match the funds,” Foster said.

At this point, the administration doesn’t know why the governor changed his mind.

“You put in a proposal, and that proposal was put in a long time ago, and all of a sudden the cost of inflation and the goods has increased, but for some reason we’re locked,” Foster said. “Not only are we locked into the money, we’re also locked into those plans.”

“It’d be great if he (changed his mind again) and we’d have the money back,” said Katie Rodriguez, the area coordinator and an assistant biology professor of Natural Sciences. “But he doesn’t seem like the sort of governor that has changed his mind on fiscal issues.”

Foster feels that a part of the problem is the continuous change of members in the college’s administration. She feels that the current administration is stuck with the decisions that were made by the previous administration, notably from former chief financial officer (CFO) Robert Miller, and now it is affecting Superintendent/President Rajen Vurdien.

“….the decisions of one group of people are very different from the decisions of our current group,” Foster said. “They still had to deal with the fallout and the issues of those decisions. So I know that’s been hard on [Vurdien].”

But Rodriguez, who has been vocal about this project since it started, said that there’s a lack of communication from administration to faculty. She believes that there are more people that need to be blamed for this ongoing problem, and yet, no one is taking the fall for it. According to her, people are “conveniently” pointing fingers at those who are no longer working here.

“You know, if you worked here for a couple of years and … you walk past a chain-linked fence around it, don’t tell me you didn’t ask any questions about that,” Rodriguez said. “The buck’s gotta stop somewhere.”

Rodriguez also points out that GKK Works, the company that has been contracted to work on the U Building, has been involved in a number of lawsuits and disputes. For example, the LA Times reported in a March 2012 article that GKK (along with other contractors) had agreed to pay the City of Glendale $4.9M for “shoddy” work in a joint collaboration on the Edison School-Pacific Park Neighborhood Improvement project back in 2001. A 2015 watchdog report from the Orange County Register says the Orange Educational Center in Orange, CA closed down due to its state certification issues. The report also noted that when the construction of the building began in 2005, it was never approved or reviewed by the state architects, which is a violation of state law. Since 2015, there was a $21M renovation of the building due to allegations that the district covered up the building’s problems before the 2012 bond election. District officials say that GKK Works “failed to follow state laws” before they began construction and is also liable for certification costs – which the firm disagreed to.

Rodriguez also says the company came up with blueprints for the U Building classrooms that initially were made to hold only 23 students instead of 30 – which she also addressed the administration about.

“So imagine what that would’ve cost us,” Rodriguez said. “They would’ve had to redesign everything anyway.”

Back in the summer of 2010, there was an inspection that revealed that the 45-year-old building was deemed unsafe (became structurally unsafe in 2012, according to officials) for occupying due to seismic issues, among other health issues like lack of clean air due to little to no ventilation, lack of custodial care and rodent problems.

At the time, Miller said that the “building will pancake” if there was an earthquake big enough to cause major damage. The Science Village was then built on a parking lot due to the evacuation of the building. Since then, the STEM program has expanded due to donations and other funding.

Around election time in Fall 2016, the Board of Trustees hired a company to canvass different elected areas around Pasadena and concluded that the community of voters was going to support a bond, according to Foster.

“But all of the board members (except Hoyt Hillsman) voted no on it,” Foster said. “Their argument was that the renters said they would vote (for the bond), and the homeowners would incur most of the cost of that bond as increased taxes, and that they were concerned that it would upset their constituents.”

Another thing that made the board feel “uncomfortable” to accept the bond was the list of projects that was made by those who work in facilities. Foster said the board argued that they wanted to see “firm plans,” but, people who are familiar and experienced with similar projects like ours, say that’s “not the way things work.”

“Long Beach (community college) for instance and other schools have received very large bonds just like (the one we were approved for), and they didn’t have extensive detailed plans,” Foster said. “I don’t know if the board wanted to be more involved with those plans, or they didn’t trust that things will get managed; I don’t know what their reasoning was  … it was just that the whole premise was flawed (in my opinion).”

This led the board to put in their proposal to get funding from the state. Back in November, the passing of Proposition 51 meant the funds from the $9B bond were going to be used to fund 100 percent of the construction of the U building. PCC, along with San Francisco City College, would be the first to receive the money from the state.

But, during the Board of Trustees meeting in late January, Richard Storti (who took over some of Miller’s duties – and has since resigned as of late February) delivered the updated proposal that the governor made with some significant changes. If this update is signed into law in June, Storti said that it “would be a huge hurdle for us” to match the new proposal.

“In the proposed budget, that change is (now) to be a 50% matched project, so the college would be required to match (it), which is approximately $30 million,” Storti said. “On top of that, the state is not providing total funding for cost escalations, so if the raw materials or the cost of labor goes up, we anticipate that the cost escalations will be in the neighborhood of $6-8 billion.”

The May Revise is a little over a month away.

This story has been updated from its original version to correct an error in the amount of money PCC would be required to contribute to the cost of renovations for the U building.  

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