Todd Utikal’s frustration really piled up last March.

The latest attempt at a bond measure for Pleasanton schools didn’t pass that month, around the same time COVID-19 slammed the brakes on business at Utikal’s downtown restaurant, SideTrack Bar + Grill.

Money wasn’t flowing and the 17-year resident of Pleasanton had to do something.

“Measure M didn’t pass. I’m not good at a lot of stuff, but I can get people in the same room,” said Utikal, 48, who has 10- and 13-year-old old daughters in local schools.

“I talked to administrators, facility, people who were for and against Measure M. I thought I should give people something tangible to get done, instead of something big and vague,” he said. “Something that people can see.”

We Are Pleasanton was born.

Throwing shade

Utikal decided the group’s first effort would be throwing shade — literally — at the quad area of Amador Valley High School, which isn’t far from his restaurant.

“There’s a bunch of picnic tables just jammed together under a few trees and people can barely get through the area,” he said.

Utikal contacted the school district and started fundraising in October for a structure providing 8,000 square feet of shade, costing about $224,000.

Utikal approached established nonprofit Pleasanton Partnerships in Education Foundation (PPIE) to work with his new group, which itself isn’t a nonprofit.

“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so they opened an account for us and they’re keeping track of the money,” Utikal said on Dec. 18. “Last night we got a donation for $10,000, and we just reached $175,000 today, so if $224,000 is our goal by the end of the year, we’re almost there.”

“This effort represents the kinds of great things that come about when members of the community step in the gap. I’m very grateful for Todd’s leadership.”

Superintendent David Haglund, Pleasanton Unified School District

PPIE has been around since 1987 and already has a funding pipeline into local schools. Executive Director Steve McCoy-Thompson said the partnership just made sense, as Utikal was already a “great” supporter.

“We consider it a project of PPIE,” said McCoy-Thompson. “The donations are able to go through PPIE and the funds are not commingled; they’re separately tracked. Once all the money is collected by the school district, construction can start.”

McCoy-Thompson said the failure of Measure M left school officials scrambling for additional funding. Unlike other Bay Area municipalities, Pleasanton has never passed a parcel tax for schools, he said, and the last couple bond measures will expire soon.

“Bonds have passed here, but with much lower amounts,” McCoy-Thompson said. “If (voters) really had a chance to see the progress being made by the district, people might’ve voted differently.”

“We were very, very close and many folks were quite frustrated,” said David Haglund, the superintendent of the Pleasanton Unified School District. “This effort represents the kinds of great things that come about when members of the community step in the gap. I’m very grateful for Todd’s leadership.”

‘Todd will make it happen’

John Sensiba owns local accounting firm Sensiba San Filippo, LLP. He jumped on board, saying Utikal’s efforts reminded him of Pleasanton’s first elected mayor.

“I couldn’t say no,” said Sensiba, whose business contributed $5,000. “His efforts remind me of the way Ken Mercer used to address problems in the community after he left office. Someone painted a racial slur on a garage door? Ken would organize a painting party to take care of it within hours. Todd’s goals are much larger, but along the same lines.

“For whatever reason, a very privileged community like Pleasanton can’t seem to figure out how to maintain their schools? Folks like Todd will make it happen.”

Utikal also enlisted the help of Amador’s student leadership, which he envisions becoming its own chapter of We Are Pleasanton.

“Student leadership at Amador got on board and donated $27,500,” said Utikal. “And the school district matched that.”

As did the city of Pleasanton and The Walker Family Trust. Scott and Tasha Buser chipped in $10,000. Local plumping, heating and air conditioning business Service Champions donated $5,000. Momentum was rolling through town.

“I didn’t want COVID to stop us,” Utikal said. “Business sucks right now, but we wanted to get this fun thing going. I thought ‘This is needed, so let’s do it.’”

Utikal admitted creating shade for high school students may not seem as important as other school priorities. “I’m sure some people are like, ‘Are you kidding me? We need to pay our teachers more. We need to have smaller class sizes.’ But in a time like this, to build something is important. It would be great if we can get our kids back into school and give them something to look forward to.”

The Pleasanton Unified School District is moving forward with design details and necessary permits. Utikal hopes work can start in late spring and be done before the 2021-22 school year starts.

We Are Pleasanton’s next targets are the athletic fields at Hart and Pleasanton middle schools.

“The fields are horrific, and leagues already fight over field space,” he said. “We’d get them new synthetic, all-weather fields with a cricket pitch. There are so many kids who would benefit from those fields.”

For more information, visit We Are Pleasanton.