Oxford Elementary is slated for a major reconstruction project starting in 2019. Photo: John Storey

The Berkeley School Board green-lit a $27 million reconstruction project at Oxford Elementary School on Friday, Jan. 12.

The project, slated to break ground sometime during 2019, will be funded with existing revenue from Berkeley Unified’s 2010 Measure I school facilities bond.

The district plans to modernize the whole elementary school, reconstructing the multipurpose room and cafeteria, adding new and larger classrooms as well as bathrooms in younger classrooms, improving accessibility and installing energy-efficiency features including solar paneling.

Oxford classes will likely be relocated to the West Campus at 2020 Bonar St. during construction, which could take around 18 months, said Tim White, BUSD facilities director.

At a special meeting Friday, the School Board also approved the $10 million renovation of West Campus, to prepare it to serve as the “swing site” for students displaced from Oxford — and from other schools in the future.

The board initially approved both the Oxford and West Campus work, along with several other Measure I modernization projects, in January 2017. At that point, the Oxford project was expected to cost around $10 million. After conducting a deeper analysis this past year, staff determined that many of the Measure I projects would cost much more than expected, and found the Oxford price tag would be almost triple the initial projected cost.

The board’s approval of the Measure I projects represent a shift in the district’s approach to construction, away from many smaller, piecemeal efforts and toward a few larger, comprehensive projects. White has advocated for this shift, and has long pushed for the Oxford overhaul, which he called “groundbreaking” in an interview with Berkeleyside. Some in the district had questioned dedicating a large chunk of resources to one site.

“It’s one of the schools that has some of the most oppressive conditions for kids,” said White, whose own daughter attended Oxford.

He said the school serves a large population of students with special needs and medical issues, but does not have the accessibility features needed to support them.

“That school is so full of love and care, but the facility itself doesn’t lend itself to accommodating kids,” White said.

Oxford Principal Beth Rhine addressed the School Board at its regular meeting Wednesday, thanking them for giving the site attention and rattling off a list of facilities issues at her school.

“Our campus is in desperate need of updating,” Rhine said. “Our floors are cracked, our heaters leak, our ceilings are stained, the cafeteria and the building have a little bit of a mold odor lingering, our clocks don’t work — we run on Oxford time…Our building is multiple colors, the windows in the  classrooms are small, sort of unsafe and inefficient for ventilation, light and possibly an emergency exit.” She said there is currently insufficient space for counseling or the special education program.

The district is working with Oakland-based HY Architects on both the Oxford and West Campus projects. White said he hopes they will be able to salvage the colorful mural students painted on the playground around 2000, which is dedicated to a student who died that year, but is unsure that will be possible.

He said he expects the energy-efficiency work to make up some of the high cost of the project by reducing future utility bills.

The Oxford effort will be the most extensive BUSD construction project in years, if not decades. Cragmont, Malcolm X and Washington elementary schools all underwent similar reconstruction in the 1990s.

The Oxford and West Campus projects were both approved on the board’s consent calendar, where a package of typically uncontroversial items are passed all at once.

Board member Ty Alper expressed some concern about both Measure I projects, saying Wednesday, “it’s a close call for me,” though he would ultimately support the allocations, since staff believed them necessary “to maintain and manage a critical and valuable district asset.”

Alper said he was concerned that the prices of each project had increased since the last time they came before the board, and said he felt “uncomfortable” about the renovation of the West Campus auditorium, a $3 million piece of that project.

The two new projects dip into the remaining $113 million or so in the Measure I budget, which must be used for facilities improvement and construction. The $210 million measure has so far contributed to the completion of the Tim Moellering Field, Berkeley High’s South of Bancroft stadium project, as well as construction at King Middle School, Jefferson Elementary School and elsewhere.

District staff has proposed a number of other uses for the rest of the funds, consolidating many smaller projects that were previously proposed.

The largest project on the current list is the renovation of Berkeley High’s A Building, which includes the Community Theater, Little Theater and classrooms. In January 2017, the board allocated $35 million for the project, but staff later determined it will cost $111 million. Presenting to the board in October, staff said the district could either choose to fund a more simple modernization at the initial cost, or could start work on the larger project, waiting for future funding to complete it.

BUSD will likely put a new facilities bond measure on the 2020 ballot.

Ed. note: This article initially said the School Board approved these projects on Wednesday. BUSD spokesman Charles Burress alerted Berkeleyside on Friday that the board inadvertendly neglected to pass the consent calendar Wednesday, due to a new rearrangement of the meeting agenda. At a special meeting Friday, the board, with members Josh Daniels, Ty Alper and Beatriz Leyva-Cutler present, approved the items 3-0. 

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...