“Rest in Pieces, Building D” tweeted Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District Construction (@SmmusdC) on July 31. An image of two excavators crunching over the remains of Malibu High School’s brick building accompanied the Tweet. 

Malibu High School Principal Patrick Miller described “the visual of the two-story building coming down” as “impressive” and “surreal,” especially because he had begun his Malibu teaching career in that building. 

Building D, also known as “the Mako Building,” “the 100s/200s,” “the brick building” and “the one with the mural,” which for decades housed Malibu teachers’ classrooms, is perhaps the most significant recent demolition project on the campus. But ongoing construction has been a perennial feature of Malibu High’s campus, funded by a series of bond measures such as $286 million Measure BB in 2006, some of the $385 million Measure ES in 2012 and $195 million Measure M in 2018. SMMUSD Chief Operations Officer Cary Upton told The Malibu Times the district will likely have to seek more funding in order to complete the entire remodel of the high school, which he anticipates will entail up to 10 new buildings and which he described as “about a 10-year-or-more project.”

The campus was originally built as a middle school in the 1950s, but was changed to accommodate a high school in the ‘90s. Since then, the campus has experienced numerous growing pains as it has expanded. Construction has been hampered by long permit and approval processes from different commissions; delays in acquiring materials; wind and rain; an expansion plan overhaul in 2018; the Woolsey Fire; and multiple lawsuits—including complaints over potential light pollution due to parking lot and football field lighting and a lawsuit about the discovery of toxic industrial compounds called PCBs on the site, spearheaded by local parent-turned-environmental activist Jennifer deNicola. 

DeNicola’s fight to remove PCBs started in 2014 when three teachers were diagnosed with the same type of thyroid cancer within months of each other. DeNicola eventually founded the nonprofit America Unites to address the issue. SMMUSD has since committed to removing all of their buildings that have PCBs. But deNicola thinks the drawn-out timeline and high cost have not been up to standard.

“Every year is another exposure to teachers and students,” she said. “Anybody who cannot budget $195 million dollars to build a high school for just 600 kids—even if you threw in the middle school, you’re talking at most 1,100 kids—is irresponsible with Malibu’s taxpayer money,” she added.

Upton was careful to note that, while PCBs were found throughout the high school, technically the level of PCBs was never beyond what the Environmental Protection Agency condoned as safe. Upton also said that the high school is being remodeled mainly to match a shift to a more modern style of project-based learning within the classroom.

As for the timeline? Although activists were hoping the buildings could be rebuilt quickly as an emergency project, Upton said rules for constructing public buildings meant the process would take longer—but added that “we build some of the safest buildings in California.”

So far, three buildings along with the Building D have been demolished. SMMUSD is also in the process of abating four other buildings that have PCBs: the music building, the kitchen/theatre building, the art building and the old gymnasium. Upton said that though he was still working out the details, he thought that by the end of September, SMMUSD will have “managed” all of the PCBs on campus with the exception of one building (the shop building, Building G), which is already scheduled for demolition in the upcoming months.

But now, SMMUSD has one more hurdle to face: the coronavirus pandemic, which has slowed its efforts to acquire some materials. In some ways, though, Upton described, the pandemic has allowed construction to accelerate. No students on campus means fewer potential risks to think about.  

Upton said he hoped students will be back in full force in January 2021, but clarified that if and when students are able to come back in any form this fall, campus will be safe and ready for them. 

Fifteen years after the passage of the first bond measure in 2006, Miller, for one, is looking forward to a campus that will allow for more separation between the middle and high schools and offer improved security. 

But mainly, he is excited for “buildings that the community are really gonna be proud of.” He’s there every day, even now, during the pandemic, to get work done and just in case someone shows up and needs help. “It’s home,” Miller said.

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