Feeding Frenzy 

Meet the team behind the Belmont Learning Complex, California's most expensive high school

Wednesday, Mar 4 1998
On one point, there has never been disagreement. The kids who live in the Echo Park and Temple-Beaudry areas near downtown L.A. need a school. Overcrowded, undersized Belmont High can barely accommodate its 5,000 students. Many teachers don't even have regular classrooms, moving throughout the day from one briefly available room to the next, carrying books and homework papers in a box. Students must scatter across campus for space to eat at lunch, and often leave campus entirely for P.E. classes. At least 3,500 more students from the area's mostly Latino neighborhoods don't have seats in local schools at all, and must endure bus rides as long as 90 minutes each way to less crowded campuses in the Valley.

The first remedy was a straightforward plan to build a school, but that changed completely in 1994, when the school board approved a more grandiose staff proposal.

The project's transformation occurred in the school district's little-known Planning and Development branch, an office headed by veteran school administrator Dominic Shambra. No longer plain old Belmont High, the project became, under Shambra, the Belmont Learning Complex, a "career academy" high school that would anchor an idealized mini-city complete with a market, pharmacy, stores and restaurants; a public library, a child-care center and community meeting hall; a parklike recreation center with two gymnasiums and a pool; and even affordable housing for seniors and young families. In this urban utopia, seniors would stroll from their apartments across a plaza to the child-care center to help out with toddlers left by parents taking classes in the school buildings, while older children played soccer or attended homework-help sessions, and teenagers worked as paid apprentices in the stores.

Such visions played well with the school board, city officials and community leaders. After all, the Belmont area needed a good market and places to shop. But more important, the learning complex was touted as recompense for damage done to this working-class neighborhood when a failed private-development scheme leveled blocks of homes - and broke a pledge to build new affordable housing in return. The proposed plan received enthusiastic support.

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Now, the Belmont project has changed again. Between the fits and starts of El Nino's downpours, concrete and steel are rising at the corner of Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue, but a project once described as a Cadillac will almost certainly look more like a Pontiac with manual windows - except in terms of the $200 million price tag. The affordable housing has been scrapped, at least for now, and even a scaled-back shopping center appears iffy. Also in doubt are such promised features as a pool and lights for the athletic fields.

From the start, the Belmont complex was overly ambitious, all at once attempting a kitchen sink full of untried approaches. But it also became the feeding ground for a district-subsidized brain trust - some of them with troubling conflicts of interest - who answered mainly to Shambra and were rarely accountable to anyone. This clique of outside consultants, attorneys and financial analysts became consumed with the idea of pursuing retail development at Belmont, an emphasis that directly benefited project developers and the consultants themselves, while it delayed construction of badly needed classrooms, jeopardized state funding and drove up costs. In the shark-infested waters of real estate speculation, Belmont triggered a feeding frenzy, one that left the needs of students high and dry.

The Investigation

In some ways, no school-construction project has ever been scrutinized so closely as the Belmont Learning Complex. The school's design and costs have been dissected by oversight committees and project foes from union critics to lobbyists for Donald Trump. But until now, no official review has ever dug into the original deal-making behind awarding the Belmont contract to the Kajima Corporation, a controversial Japan-based construction giant. Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Glendale), at the urging of Belmont critics, is conducting a fact-finding probe in his capacity as chair of the Legislature's audit committee.

District officials responded initially by digging in their heels, refusing to turn over key documents and challenging Wildman's authority to question their conduct. Wildman's investigators say planning director Shambra in particular destroyed records of his correspondence with the primary consultants involved in the Belmont project. Shambra, who retired last month, denied shredding any records but added that he routinely threw away reports and correspondence from consultants for years, and said he has no intention of cooperating with Wildman any more than he has to.

In a February 9 letter to the school district, Wildman wrote, "I am stunned by Mr. Shambra's disregard for his responsibility to maintain his division's public records - in particular his correspondence." He added: "Mr. Shambra was not running his own private development company."

Separately, Wildman faulted school-district real estate department head Robert Niccum for stating his intent to "redact requested real estate files of completed transactions, claiming 'attorney-client privilege.' When my researcher tried to gain more information about the documents, and specifically the attorney he was referring to, Mr. Niccum curtly responded, 'None of your business.' To a specific request for a master list of all LAUSD-owned properties, Mr. Niccum said, 'Fat chance.'"

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