RJ Salvaressa was an eighth-grader when he started sketching the design that ultimately became the mural at Crescent Elk Middle School's garden.

Inspired by the foxgloves and hummingbirds he saw in the school garden, RJ, who is entering his junior year at Del Norte High School, said he spent much of his freshman year drawing and painting the design on the wall that faced the garden. He was nearly a sophomore when he finished the mural.

Now, only a year later, the mural is nowhere to be found. Workers rehabilitating the school's exterior this summer completely covered the mural when they coated the wall with an elastomeric sealant that prevents water from penetrating the stucco.

"I feel that it's a great insult to my artwork," RJ said. "Nobody contacted us about it. We just drove by (the school) one day and it was blank."

Joe Gillespie, Crescent Elk's seventh-grade science teacher, has been maintaining the school's garden for 21 years. He said he spent years planning a mural with another student artist but was unable to get it painted due to a wet spring. After obtaining permission from the school's principal, Bill Hartwick, Gillespie began working with RJ about a year and half ago to paint the mural.

Gillespie said he was approached about the mural last month by Del Norte County Unified School District Superintendent Don Olson and Trustee Lori Cowan. According to Gillespie, Olson assured him that the district was going to try to lay the sealant around the mural. Olson, Gillespie said, told him the mural would only be at risk if there was structural damage to the roof and wall.

"I felt pretty good about that," Gillespie said, adding that he later talked to three painters at the school. "I asked, 'What's your plan for the mural?' and they said, 'We're going to cut around it.' All I know is I saw it (last) Thursday morning. I was just turning the corner (andthought) 'Oh my God!'"

According to Jeff Napier, the district's assistant superintendent of business services, the stucco had already been compromised when the mural was painted. The surface wasn't prepared properly before the mural was painted, and even though the principal approved the artwork, the district office wasn't notified so maintenance could inspect the wall, he said.

"The stucco was flaking off even where the mural is, so we needed to seal the entire wall," Napier said. "We are planning on putting up a new mural. The superintendent had already said we'd pay for all the materials at the last board meeting. He made that comment publicly."

Napier said Olson showed pictures of the Crescent Elk project to the School Board on June 26. Olson was unavailable for comment this week.

The Del Norte Unified School District Board of Trustees in January approved plans for a $1.4 million rehabilitation project at Crescent Elk Middle School that would be paid for with voter-approved general obligation bond funds. Plans were approved by the California Division of the State Architect and work started when school let out in June.

Construction crews have been working to replace the roof on the school's gym and main building, Napier said. Several rotted wooden beams and steel pipes have had to be replaced. The stucco on Crescent Elk's walls has also needed replacement in several places, he said.

The project bid also called for coating all stucco surfaces at Crescent Elk with the elastomeric sealant, Napier said. If workers hadn't sealed the portion of the wall that housed the mural, moisture still would have penetrated the stucco and spread elsewhere, he said.

"Even if we put regular paint on there, it's not necessarily going to seal it enough so moisture can't get behind it. The elastomeric sealant we're using doesn't come in clear," Napier said, adding that he spoke with RJ's grandmother about the mural. "It's very unfortunate. We understand the kids worked hard and Mr. Gillespie is extremely passionate about his projects with his kids."

Gillespie disagrees with Napier. He said the wall near his garden didn't have moisture issues and the paint used in the mural would have acted as a sealant.

"I think that wall was fine, and I think their approach was very cavalier and dismisses all the work that went into it," Gillespie said. "There's lots of ways to seal a wall, and they could have used a clear sealer and not had any problems. My point is that they did not pursue other options hard enough - is there something else we could do with that one wall? How are things actually looking at that wall?"

After what has happened with Crescent Elk's mural, Napier said, the district will probably bring a policy recommendation to the School Board to prevent another school mural from being destroyed. The School Board should be able to approve the subject matter of a potential mural, and bringing it to the board's attention gives maintenance crews a chance to inspect the chosen wall, he said.

"Let's make sure our maintenance crew can work with them to prep the walls to make sure everything's good," Napier said. "There are going to be more exterior renovations going on at different schools. If we know a mural's going up, if it's stucco, we'll make sure we put on an elastomeric sealant before they ever do it."

Even though district officials want to help replace the mural at Crescent Elk, RJ said if he's chosen as the artist, he's not going to do it for free.

"I'd have to try to do it for pay this time," he said. "My teacher is talking to me - he had an idea of about $20 an hour. No less."

Gillespie said RJ should be paid a minimum of $2,000 to replace the mural.

"He spent dozens of hours of work," he said, referring to the original mural. "I'm very proud of him."

Napier said contracting RJ as the artist would be something for the School Board to decide.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.