Renovations are planned for the end of summer to bring La Mesa’s oldest school building up to seismic and disability-access standards, according to the school district. was built in 1922 and is made out of unreinforced masonry, a type of material that’s susceptible to earthquakes.
After years of working out the details of funding, Deputy Superintendent Scott Patterson says the district has “finally amassed and identified a funding source” that will allow them to make the required upgrades and improvements to the school’s landmark main building, which now serves as the Grossmont Union High School District’s main office.
According to Patterson, funding for the 18-month modernization project will come from several sources and total about $12.5 million. At the top of the list of donors is the El Cajon Redevelopment Agency, which will provide $5 million in tax increments.
“Based on our agreement,” Patterson said, “it says we can use the money from the El Cajon Redevelopment Agency for capital facility projects and also specifies it can be used for the modernization project.”
The Gillespie Field Redevelopment Project will also provide $2 million, along with $4.5 million applied from propositions H and U, and an additional $1 million from the school’s accumulated interest and earnings.
Though government records show no major faults running through La Mesa, renovations will include steel reinforcements in the granite walls. The project will be done from the inside out in order to preserve the building’s historical exterior—a keen interest, Patterson said.
“This building is very architecturally unique,” he said. “We’re going to try everything we can to preserve the look and feel of the building and still meet the codes.”
He’s not the only on who’d like to see things kept as is on the outside.
“A lot of people are very attached to the building,” said Lynn Baer, who runs the museum at Grossmont High School along with her sister Connie. “A lot of students think it’s a haunted house and they want to know all the stories. But I don’t tell them because I don’t want them sneaking in in the middle of the night.”
The renovation plan comes as California Watch, an investigative reporting team, released the results Thursday of a 19-month investigation that uncovered holes in the state's enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools.
California began regulating school architecture for seismic safety in 1933 with the Field Act, but data taken from the Division of the State Architect’s office shows 20,000 school projects statewide never got final safety certifications. In the crunch to get schools built within the last few decades, state architects have been lax on enforcement, California Watch reported.
A separate Assembly Bill 300 inventory completed nine years ago found 7,500 seismically risky school buildings in the state, and Grossmont High was on the list. Yet, California Watch reports that only two schools have been able to access a $200 million fund for upgrades.
Parkway Middle School was also originally determined to be on the list of schools that received a Letter 4 designation, meaning it had a known safety problem. However, after further investigation by Superintendant Brian Marshall, it was determined that the Parkway Middle schools in reference were not in La Mesa.
“I believe the first Parkway is Parkway Heights Middle School in South San Francisco,” Marshall said in an email. “(And) the next reference of Parkway is no longer active. This school was in Santa Clara County.”
Patterson agreed, saying he didn’t know of any district schools with known violations.
“We’re not aware of any schools on the list,” said Patterson. “We heard the rumors and contacted state officials, and they were unable to confirm that any buildings in the Grossmont School District were on the list.”
He said that for more than a decade, the school’s district office has only been open to district staff, and that the “Old Main” building attached behind it hasn’t had students or teachers in it for three years.
“The district office is not being occupied by students or teachers because we know there are issues that need to be dealt with in ADA requirements and seismic upgrades,” said Patterson.
Currently, more than 100 district staffers occupy the building, and Patterson says none of them seem too worried about the building’s potential inability to withstand an earthquake.
“I don’t lay awake at night worrying,” he said. “One staff member told me: ‘This building has been standing since 1922; there’s a good chance it’s going to keep standing until after we get it retrofitted.’ But I’m glad we’re finally moving ahead with the project.”
With the modernization project slated to begin in a few months, half of the district staff will move just steps down the sidewalk into the school’s older, empty science building. Patterson said other staff members will be relocated into portable classrooms at Santana High School until construction is complete.
When complete, Patterson said several of the school’s administrative components, such as the special education program and the museum, will be moved into the newly renovated building.
“We’d like to consolidate as many functions as we can into this district office,” he said, “and free up some classroom space.”
According to the school’s museum Director Connie Baer, the landmark building was originally built in 1922 on Col. Ed Fletcher’s land, which he sold for $10 on the condition that the school would be named after his best friend, William Gross.
Changes to the main building were made in the mid 1930s, converting the auditorium into classrooms after the construction of the school’s official gym. Later, though it is not known exactly when, additional renovations were made to the back part of the building—known as “Old Main” to the locals— which altered the look drastically by adding a modern stucco façade.
Despite the changes, Baer said the building instills a lot of school pride from its students, teachers and alumni alike.
“We’re the only school of this era to still have an original building standing,” she said.
This story was produced using data provided to Patch by California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Read more about .