Santa Fe Public Schools has a hard time pointing to the reason Agua Fria Elementary School needs to be torn down.

It's not the oft-touted mold problem, which SFPS Chief Operations Officer Justin Snyder tells SFR "never really was in play." According to documentation from environmental testing service Keers Remediation, mold spores don't exist at the site in levels that threaten health.

But when Agua Fria Village resident Tamara Lichtenstein put in a request under the state Inspection of Public Records Act for all documentation of structural damage and insufficiencies at the campus justifying the demolition, the mold paperwork was all she got. 

"Are they just relying on the word of Claudio Vigil?" Lichtenstein asks.

Vigil is the Albuquerque-based architect contracted to design the new school. He responded to a request for proposals to perform a maximum of $6.7 million in renovations at the school. Unlike other architects applying for the job, Vigil suggested starting from scratch and rebuilding at a cost in excess of $20 million.

"They're proposing a complete teardown, and it's tripled the [project] budget and probably tripled [Vigil's] fees," another architect who submitted a proposal to renovate the school and spoke to SFR on condition of anonymity says. "It does seem that it is a different project and probably should have been [put out] as another RFP, in my honest opinion."

Tim Berry, deputy director of the state Public Schools Facilities Authority, says the original scope of a project can change when an architect begins to investigate it because a school district wouldn't necessarily have the expertise to realize exactly what was needed at the site. Nevertheless, in a case like Agua Fria, where no other architect was consulted once the project's scope dramatically changed, the school district has to decide whether the architect's proposal is appropriate.

"It's up to the district to either validate that and agree to increase the scope of the work and the construction costs they're contracted to," Berry says.

Agua Fria Elementary School Construction Project Manager Leo Prenevost gave SFR a tour of the campus to spotlight the shortcomings Vigil cited as justification for tearing down the property. Prenevost and Snyder say security is one issue: Under the proposed reconstruction plan, the buildings would be arranged around a central entrance area to allow for better visibility of students, as opposed to the more haphazard arrangement of the current buildings.

"Our preference nowadays is to have controlled access into the site, where the traffic is funneled through the administrative area so every visitor that comes on site you know is visible," Snyder says.

Based on Vigil's current blueprints, however, visitors would still be able to bypass the administrative area and go around to the back of the school after the redesign.

Insulation, both from noise and weather, is the other primary reason for the teardown, Prenevost says. Agua Fria currently racks up higher utility bills than other comparatively sized schools in the district, he says, because the older buildings were erected before energy efficiency became de rigueur. At the same time, one of the buildings is designed with classrooms arranged outside the lunch room, and another has classrooms in close proximity to a gym. The existing scenario is problematic: Students in the middle of lessons are distracted by the noise and excitement of nearby activities.

"Does it make sense to connect a building that is functionally obsolescent and physically limited, with no insulation, to another building [to provide campus security], or does it make sense both from a programmatic benefit as well as a cost-benefit that, at some point, buildings are outliving their useful life?" Snyder asks. The request for proposals for renovations that Vigil transformed into a complete redesign sought to address those issues, but SFPS officials now defend Vigil's assessment that the scope of work was too small.

Snyder and SFPS Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez describe the teardown as the only sensible approach to Agua Fria's issues. The campus underwent comprehensive renovation in 2005, and the problems with its youngest building, constructed within the past 10 years, aren't structural. But ongoing glitches with the heating, cooling and alarm systems have contributed to high utility bills and frustrated administrators. The 2005 work attempted to address the heating and cooling problems at the site, in addition to other problems, but wasn't totally successful, Gutierrez tells SFR.

Many members of the Agua Fria community remain skeptical that remediating the flaws in such recent work can only be achieved through demolition and new construction.

In addition to the multi-million-dollar price increase, there’s another hitch in Vigil’s plan. Agua Fria’s adobe administration building dates to 1936, when it was constructed as a Works Progress Administration project. When the National New Deal Preservation Association got wind of the plan to demolish the building, its executive director, Kathy Flynn, wrote to Gutierrez, saying she wished to “strongly encourage” SFPS to preserve the building. State Historic Preservation Division Architectural Project Reviewer Pilar Cannizzaro fired off a more sternly worded missive to Vigil himself, excoriating him and the SFPS Board of Education for failing to consult with the HPD. Cannizzaro noted that Vigil had failed to heed a previous request from HPD for information about the demolition.

"When we met last, given the advanced stage on your design, I recommended that a thorough documentation of the historic WPA structure take place before moving forward with your bidding documents, so you and the School Board could justify its demolition, with demonstrated documentation that would warrant such action, other than simply demolishing it to have an easier, blank slate for a new design concept…" Cannizzaro wrote. "At this time, we are inclined to believe that there's no justifiable reason to demolish a valuable historic structure simply for the sake of new design requirements."

But the HPD dramatically changed its tune after receiving a report on the adobe building's historic value, a report put together by Vigil's firm. Cannizzaro tells SFR that Vigil's report demonstrated the building had no historic value because of the changes already made to it in 2005. Flynn tells SFR that, although she has not reviewed Vigil's report, she also was told that the changes negated the historic value, even though her first letter noted that "the fine new addition you made to the building earlier appears quite attractive and functional." Flynn says arrangements where the construction architect also serves as historic expert are normally only found in small communities without separate qualified architects to do that work.

"It is something that seems a little strange because we certainly have plenty of architects in Santa Fe that they can choose from," Flynn says. Vigil did not return a call from SFR seeking to establish his expertise in historic assessment and address any potential conflict of interest.

As a compromise and a nod to the community's desire for preservation, some of the vigas and adobe bricks from the old building are going to be cleaned up and displayed in the entry hall of the new school, Prenevost says. Agua Fria Village Association President William Mee, for one, is doubtful that the 2005 changes negate the building's historic value.

"I thought the building was pretty much intact underneath. I think, if you just stripped it down, you'd find the whole building," Mee says. "I don't know that I really trust the architect."