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Out with the old: Long awaited Measure D renovations begin for SLO and Morro Bay high schools

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Kyle Pruitt is a local guy through and through. He’s a proud Tiger (class of 1990 at San Luis Obispo High), Cal Poly grad, former teacher at SLO High, and the current principal of Morro Bay High School. Still, even Pruitt will be the first to tell you that the grass is greener on the other side, at least when it comes to our local high schools. As a student of SLO High, Pruitt assumed, like kids do, that his old, rusting campus was just like high schools everywhere. 

It wasn’t until Pruitt was teaching in the Austin, Texas, area for a stint from 2006 to 2008 that he realized how nice a high school campus could be.

FOR THE LOVE OF ATHLETICS :  Morro Bay High School Principal Kyle Pruitt stands by his campus’s tennis courts, which are in the process of being refurbished. Work for the high school’s new pool is also underway. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • FOR THE LOVE OF ATHLETICS : Morro Bay High School Principal Kyle Pruitt stands by his campus’s tennis courts, which are in the process of being refurbished. Work for the high school’s new pool is also underway.

“I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how beautiful these schools are.’ I worked in Austin for a little while and watching schools get built constantly because that area was developing and seeing what new facilities look like with bathrooms that were working. It sounds funny, but it’s true,” he said.

Yup, you heard the man. Pruitt was in awe of working bathrooms on a high school campus. Last school year, SLO High had porta-potties on campus for several weeks because the bathrooms broke down (Morro Bay High has similar toilet troubles). Both campuses have no air-conditioning, which is a big problem considering most of their windows can’t be opened and closed. While SLO’s old annex building would likely survive the next big quake without killing anyone, it wouldn’t be useable afterwards. Oh, and did we mention that both schools just got campus-wide wi-fi this past school year—in an era where districts like Los Angeles Unified incorporated iPads in the classroom years ago?

In 2014, the San Luis Coastal Unified School District decided to get serious and ask the community the big question: Will you pass a $177 million bond measure so we can have working bathrooms and also get our own pools instead of spending more than $100,000 a year to use and transport students to local pools? And SLOcals said, “Yes, a thousand times yes!” Well, 72 percent of them said yes, which is pretty darn high. And on Friday, May 13, the district officially broke ground to start building better schools in SLO and Morro Bay.

“Our kids have said they love their school, but they tolerate the campus,” Pruitt said. “It’s empowering to know that they’re finally going to have a campus they deserve.” 

Making the grade

While SLO and Morro Bay high schools house some of the oldest buildings in the district (about 80 and 50 years old, respectively) most of the work done to the two campuses since the 1970s has been basic maintenance with some exceptions here and there. (The newest building on either campus is the science wing at Morro Bay built in the early ’90s.) The ’90s, 1990 to be specific, was also the last time the district passed a bond measure. But those funds went largely to renovating the district’s elementary and middle schools. Prior to Measure D’s passing, San Luis Coastal Unified was also one of the only districts in the area not to have any kind of bond debt. 

IN WITH THE NEW:  Just weeks before school starts in August, construction workers tear down San Luis Obispo High School’s old annex building. In its place will be a new 12-classroom building. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • IN WITH THE NEW: Just weeks before school starts in August, construction workers tear down San Luis Obispo High School’s old annex building. In its place will be a new 12-classroom building.

Anthony Palazzo, the district’s director of buildings and transportation, personally went knocking door to door with his two young children in tow, to ask community members for support. 

“Some people shut the door in your face, and some people said, ‘My grandkids go to these schools, I’m all on board,’” Palazzo said. “My personal take on it was that everyone knew it needed to happen. Curriculums change every five years, but classrooms only get to change every 30 years.”

So the shovels and bulldozers are out, dirt is flying. What’s on the to-do list for both campuses? A lot. 

In addition to those nice basics like functional toilets, operable windows, and modern classrooms, both campuses will get new student centers, renovated libraries and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) complexes, expanded cafeterias and kitchens, new tennis courts, new pools, and new theater performance spaces, all suited to each individual campus. Not too shabby. Some monies will also go to the district’s elementary schools for less major renovations. 

Just a stone’s throw from the ocean, work on the pool (scheduled to open in fall 2018), tennis courts, wrestling, and dance rooms is already underway at Morro Bay High. When you step foot on campus, it feels like entering another era. The school’s blue-gray color palette; the chipping paint and rusting buildings; the smell wafting from the bathrooms (not a good smell). Pruitt is brimming with excitement as he walks around the grounds gesturing at what will go here and what will go there.

“They’re falling apart,” Pruitt says of both campuses. “The measure is necessary, and it was really cool that the community supported the effort. Other than normal, routine maintenance, this school has just been sitting here. Measure D is literally going to touch every piece of this campus.”

CLASSROOMS OF THE FUTURE:  Anthony Palazzo, the district’s director of buildings and transportation, stands in one of the model classrooms at SLO High School. These newer classrooms will go up on each campus and feature open floor plans, walls covered in whiteboard, polished concrete floors, and improved audiovisual systems. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • CLASSROOMS OF THE FUTURE: Anthony Palazzo, the district’s director of buildings and transportation, stands in one of the model classrooms at SLO High School. These newer classrooms will go up on each campus and feature open floor plans, walls covered in whiteboard, polished concrete floors, and improved audiovisual systems.

While things are happening at Morro Bay, SLO High feels like a literal construction site, complete with a “Do Not Enter” sign and hard hats required for all who dare to enter. It’s Aug. 2, school starts in just a few weeks on Aug. 22 and buildings are being torn down. Palazzo isn’t worried though.

“There’s a saying I have in summer construction: A day is a week, a week is a month, and a month is a year, so everything that would normally happen in a week happens in a day,” Palazzo says.

Summers are when the bulk of Measure D work will get done, with some temporary portable classrooms and buildings going up as needed until the last projects wrap up in 2022. Before the new school year begins, the old annex building, which will be replaced with a new 12-classroom building, is being torn down, new tennis courts are being put in, and the finishing touches are being put on a few model “experimental classrooms” with open floor plans, walls covered in whiteboard, polished concrete floors, and improved audiovisual systems. Things are happening.

SLO High Principal Leslie O’Connor gave campus tours to community members while trying to garner support for Measure D. 

“There was never a situation where someone said, ‘I still don’t think you need the money,’” he said. “We have a phenomenal location, wouldn’t it be nice if our buildings were functional?”

Situated in between rolling hills, with gorgeous views and plenty of trees, stepping onto SLO High feels like entering a college campus, but it looks more like Cuesta College did 20 years ago than it does a modern high school campus.  

Not so extra

A pool is something of a luxury, on a personal level, when you live just minutes away from the beach. It’s also more than a little ironic that Morro Bay and SLO kids, who have grown up swimming and surfing, don’t have pools on campus to swim or play water polo in. 

DIGGING UP NEW BEGININNGS:  SLO High students and administrators broke ground on new tennis courts in May. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAN LUIS OBISPO COASTAL UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SAN LUIS OBISPO COASTAL UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • DIGGING UP NEW BEGININNGS: SLO High students and administrators broke ground on new tennis courts in May.

“The swim team is really good for swimming in a bath tub,” Pruitt said. “Being so close to the ocean, our kids are good at anything water related. Our water polo team does so much land practices it’s unbelievable.”

While the gym at Morro Bay is decked out with signs proclaiming league and CIF wins for land sports from cross country to soccer, only one flag—sporting a 2000-2001 win for CIF Girls Swimming Academic Team Championships—represents water sports. Most recently at SLO High, in 2004, girls swimming took five league titles, and boys swimming took nine league titles.

Campus pride aside, there’s also the issue of not being able to teach swimming, a basic safety skill, at school as a requirement. There’s also the matter of the time and money spent to use and bus students to local pools at Sinsheimer and Cuesta College (to the tune of $150,000 a year, according to Ryan Pinkerton, assistant superintendent of business and support services for the district). Not to mention that you travel much more for swim meets when there’s no pool on campus to host them at.

GETTING READY:  Wall panels go up in the new wrestling room at Morro Bay High School. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • GETTING READY: Wall panels go up in the new wrestling room at Morro Bay High School.

Oddly enough, both SLO and Morro Bay high schools used to have pools, but by the early 2000s they had been filled in and forgotten. Why? While building a new pool is pricy, maintaining one isn’t cheap either. Both pools’ repairs and upkeeps became too costly. According to Pruitt, it can cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year for pool maintenance. Funds from Measure D have been set aside for those purposes. The pool at Morro Bay will also be a resource for more than just students.

“This community—Morro Bay/Los Osos/Baywood—does not have a pool,” Pruitt said. If you’re like 55 and you want to go take water aerobics, you can’t do that here.”

If all goes well, the pool at SLO High will be completed a bit later, in about two years. However, construction on the new student center, which O’Connor said will be the heart of campus, is slated to begin next summer.

While O’Connor is ready to embrace all things new, he also wants to expand on the collegiate vibe, particularly with the new student center, which will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and feature a library, computer lab, conference rooms for group work, and cozy furniture for studying. O’Connor figures the more they can foster an open, engaging environment similar to colleges and the workplaces of today—like Google—the more prepared students will be when they leave SLO High for higher education and the workforce. 

“I think people learn best when they learn from each other,” O’Connor said. 

Looking to the future

IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL:  	With renovations slated to last at San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay High Schools until 2022, check out sanluiscoastalmeasured.org to see when the next project is beginning or wrapping up.
  • IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL: With renovations slated to last at San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay High Schools until 2022, check out sanluiscoastalmeasured.org to see when the next project is beginning or wrapping up.

Shiny, fun, and new things aside, what you’ll hear the grown-ups at SLO and Morro Bay high schools say time and time again is that they’re really excited about having the kinds of facilities that the students deserve to learn in.

“Just the essentials of an environment that we would all expect our kids to have is important,” Pruitt said. “All of this stuff [the pool, tennis courts] is just cake. It’s when we actually go in and gut classrooms and make them bigger, bring in technology and new flooring and desks and places for the kids to work, I think that’s going to be really cool.” 

Ryah Cooley wants New Times’ basement office renovated with windows at rcooley@newstimesslo.com

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