As if crumbling ceilings and rat infestations weren't enough for San Francisco's public schools to deal with, one middle school was recently found to have lead and arsenic in its water. These structural and maintenance issues have grown so dire that the district estimated a comprehensive fix would cost at least $1.7 billion.
In spite of visibly aging buildings and rodents on the grounds, routine state-mandated facilities inspections rated numerous SF schools as either “exemplary” or “good” between 2019 and 2021. Peering into San Francisco Unified School District’s own data, however, reveals that the condition of dozens of schools changed dramatically in a short period, and the district-hired inspector who evaluated them did so on a truncated timeline, calling into question accuracy of the district-mandated inspection reports.
In 2022, a different building inspection survey run by Vanderweil Facility Advisors found that many of those facilities once rated "above average" on School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs) are suddenly listed as being in “poor” or “fair” condition—and not just a handful, either. At least 25 school sites received lower facilities ratings, when comparing older SARC surveys with more recent Vanderweil findings. Many schools are in low-income neighborhoods serving students of color.
The good news is that the majority of schools are still structurally sound and safe. Yet the Vanderweil survey revealed that, contrary to previous inspection findings, San Francisco’s public schools are in dire need of maintenance and modernization to fix issues like faulty heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and falling ceilings.
Now, the school district is looking to secure upward of $1 billion in bond investments to improve its facilities.
The Vanderweil rating system has five tiers, ranging from “exemplary” to “deficient.” The overwhelming majority of SFUSD schools and other administrative sites received middling grades on the 2022 facilities reports, and the average rating for all 148 school properties is “fair.”
Roughly 55% of the school district's sites—including both schools and administrative buildings—had “fair” or “good” facilities ratings, compared to the 36% that SFUSD rated as “deficient” or “poor.” Yet the district says that the physical size and scale of larger high school campuses will account for a disproportionately higher share of the costs of required improvements.
The district also highlighted the Mission and SoMa as having the largest cluster of schools in below-average condition. A handful of schools in this region received funds from the 2003 and 2006 bond programs—mostly used to improve Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility—but numerous Mission District schools were passed over in 2016 for bond monies.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, poor ratings go hand-in-hand with populations of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
By contrast, schools in Bernal Heights and wealthier enclaves like Noe Valley and the Marina boast numerous “good” or “excellent” ratings. Schools with high scores tend to be newer, with many built within the last 15 years.
The 2022 Vanderweil survey used a facilities condition index to rate SFUSD sites, which measures a given system’s ratio of improvement costs to the calculated replacement value. District officials said that, compared with previous inspections such as the School Accountability Report Cards surveys, the Vanderweil facilities survey was far more comprehensive.
“[Vanderweil] has a team of people who specialize in evaluating systems full-time,” said SFUSD Head of Facilities Dawn Kamalanathan. “They're still limited to visual inspections, but they look at and estimate—building system to building system—what the useful life of that asset is and what kind of condition it is in.”
Kamalanathan said that the state-mandated SARC reports are carried out by just one person who conducts a “visual inspection” of things that one might notice while walking on school grounds or facilities.
The one person conducting an annual visual inspection is George Kalligeros of Elmast Construction and Inspection Services, who has contracts with the school district going back to 2017.
Kalligeros could not be reached for comment, as the only number associated with Elmast Construction and Inspection Services was not in service and the business has virtually no online presence. Further, Kalligeros’s business information is redacted from the 2022 SFUSD contracts, and earlier contracts that contain his phone number led to a voicemail inbox that had not been set up.
Kalligeros gave a majority of schools “exemplary” and “good” ratings in 2020 and 2021, not finding a single school to be in fair or poor condition. At least 14 schools actually went up in Elmast’s ratings—from “good” to “exemplary”—from 2020 to 20221 in Kalligeros’s reports, even though only two of the schools were identified for 2016 bond monies. Twelve of the 14 schools that went up in their ratings are located in the city’s southeast.
Despite Kalligeros’s August 2021 “exemplary” inspection report for Buena Vista Horace Mann, a gas leak prompted an evacuation of the entire school later in the very same month—and that’s in addition to the already well-documented falling ceiling tiles, electrical issues and rodent infestation.
One of the categories on the inspection report Kalligeros completed for the school is “gas leaks” and another is “pest/vermin infestation.” Other categories include “interior surfaces” and “electrical.” Even a visual inspection, in theory, should have revealed the many electrical and ceiling issues plaguing the school that have been made apparent in photographic evidence.
Yet Buena Vista Horace Mann is one of the few schools that went up in their rating—from “good” to “exemplary” between 2020 and 2021—according to Kalligeros’s inspection report. The district awarded Kalligeros a $38,750 contract in June 2021 to inspect schools throughout the district for $125 an hour, including seven high schools, eight K-8 schools and 24 elementary schools. Kalligeros has been inspecting schools for SFUSD since 2017 and continues to work with the district, his most recent contract with SF schools being for 2022.
Kalligeros completed 38 school inspections for the district between Aug. 17 and Oct. 2, 2021, which would have necessitated more than eight-hour workdays for the month and a half, not including travel time between schools.
The appalling conditions at Buena Vista Horace Mann prompted District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen to secure monies for an independent inspection conducted by the Department of Public Works in December of 2021, which had wildly different findings from Kalligeros’s report. Yet SFUSD has not addressed the disparity in these inspections—and Kalligeros continues to work for the district.
It begs the question if the SARC inspections are truly inspections, or merely a rubber stamp to complete the state-mandated reports required by the Williams Act, a law passed in 2004 that requires all schools in California to, in part, maintain safe facilities in good repair.
Vanderweil, an organization SFUSD representatives say is contracted by other city agencies, was contacted for comment.
None of SFUSD’s schools qualify as “deficient” in its overall campus facilities ratings, according to the district’s 2023 Facilities Master Plan and Vanderweil survey. If that’s the case, then why is the district pushing for massive capital investment for renovations and repairs?
District representatives say that a myriad of underlying maintenance, structural and safety problems continue to plague SF schools, impacting student learning and upping the costs for routine maintenance and repairs—many of which are not covered under bond investments. Rather than providing band-aid solutions to deeper systematic facilities problems, SFUSD is looking to invest big and modernize outdated and faulty operating systems.
In particular, HVAC systems—heating, ventilation and air conditioning—and electrical systems across SF schools are operating in “deficient” and “poor” conditions. Improving these two systems pose the biggest financial challenge, with their estimated repair and replacement costs topping $824.1 million combined.
If significant capital investments do not replace deteriorating HVAC or electrical systems at certain schools, SFUSD says these systems will be “incrementally maintained” by the district’s very limited maintenance budget.
“We’ve been bond-rich and maintenance-poor,” Kamalanathan said in an October SF school board. “Without maintenance dollars to keep this up, you will see this deterioration. Underinvestment in capital structure is a statewide—if not national—issue.”
SFUSD wants to get ahead of these issues, and the district may ask San Francisco voters to approve a $1 billion bond—roughly the district’s operating budget—in 2023 or 2024. This latest proposal would represent a 34% increase in funds from 2016’s approved bond.
District representatives intend to present these findings to the Board of Education today. The board determines how to prioritize, select and program bond funds, said SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick. The district facilities head also noted that it also makes recommendations for bond allocation based on other facilities reports, such as seismic strengthening surveys.
The decision to approve a bond, however, rests in the hands of voters. But perhaps the most recent spate of school facilities failures—and the effects it has on student life—will sway San Franciscans, who have taken a renewed interest in the city’s public schools.
“The garden is my favorite,” said a first grader at Buena Vista Horace Mann School told The Standard in December, after lead and arsenic were found in the soil on school property. “There’s so much stuff to look at. There’s animals in there we get to look at. I want the bad soil […] the bad little thing that’s in the soil [to] get out so I can play back in the garden.”