By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The district has characterized such incidents as misunderstandings. In the end, while officials turned over thousands of pages of materials, they also attempted to end Wildman's probe by calling last week for an official state audit, in which even confidential district records could be reviewed in their entirety but would be off-limits to the public.
Wildman reads the action as an attempt by a few district administrators to derail his fact-finding probe, by moving the Belmont inquiry to the busier and less aggressive jurisdiction of the California State Auditor. In addition, his researchers assert that the school district has stamped too many records as confidential, thus removing them from public purview.
"The bottom line here is the role of Mr. Shambra," wrote Wildman in one letter to the school district. "Was he actually functioning as an agent of the district, supervised and controlled by district personnel? Or was he running a rogue unit, unsupervised and unaccountable to anyone, even the superintendent?"
The Belmont project was fashioned out of the school district's Office of Planning and Development, a unique and virtually autonomous entity operating within the district's vast bureaucracy. Located in customized modern offices that occupy a corner suite on the 11th floor of the IBM building downtown, the unit was headed by Dom Shambra, a hard-charging administrator known for his gruff demeanor, quick wit and expletive-laced tirades. A former elementary school principal with 37 years in the school district, Shambra rose to become a troubleshooting special-assignment administrator under the patronage of friend and former district superintendent Bill Anton - the pair met in the early 1960s, when Anton was an assistant principal and Shambra a playground supervisor in Boyle Heights. Years later, Anton thought enough of Shambra to make him best man at his wedding.
Shambra's office became a force under Anton, and reported directly to the superintendent, a unique arrangement for a department manager. Sid Thompson, Anton's successor, continued to let Shambra operate outside the normal chain of command.
Shambra's charge at the development office was to find creative ways to build schools more quickly and cheaply, and even to bring in revenue in the process. At the time - as now - the school district had a great need for classroom space, but a spotty record getting state school-construction money.
This was an era when maverick developers were making millions of dollars in high-risk real estate ventures that could realize windfall profits practically overnight. School officials were determined to match that performance, realizing "maximum asset management," as district real estate chief Niccum told the L.A. Times in 1990. District planners were convinced that forming partnerships with private developers represented "the wave of the future," and Shambra was charged with making it happen.
To be a player in this market, Shambra, who earned $100,000 a year, assembled a team of high-priced consultants experienced in speculative real estate projects. It included Wayne D. Wedin, a private-enterprise expert; David W. Cartwright and Lisa M.C. Gooden, crack real estate attorneys from the high-powered O'Melveny & Myers firm; and Betty Hanson, a facilities specialist out of the state education department. He also brought in financial analysts - first Coopers & Lybrand, then Ernst & Young. And for a time, there was an in-house architect: Ernesto M. Vasquez.
Several of these functions duplicated work already done by full-time district staff, but Shambra wanted a team answering only to him. And he paid top dollar to get it, engineering much of his own payroll by negotiating funding from the Community Redevelopment Agency in one instance and a private developer in another. After all, when school-board members see the line "no impact on the general fund," they're more likely to say yes.
Shambra's first public-private venture, the construction of a commercial parking garage on district property, never brought in much income, but that did nothing to discourage him. The big prize was the site of the storied Ambassador Hotel, on which the school district intended to build a high school. In the frenzied dying gasps of the go-go '80s, the school district went to war over the parcel with New York developer Donald Trump - and not just to trump Trump, but to become Trump, reaping profits by building commercial space as well as classrooms. One plan from Shambra's office envisioned razing the Ambassador itself, then building a high school on the rear of the property and, on the front, erecting some 1.6 million square feet of commercial development, including a 30-story office tower.
Few were surprised when the Ambassador project bogged down in litigation with Trump, but Shambra was undeterred. The district seized an opportunity to buy the Belmont site, and with the superintendent's blessing, Shambra's office immediately took charge of the entire project - and began pursuing a package of innovations.
The Free-Market Wizard
The consultant who drove Shambra's "mixed-use" real estate strategy was Wayne Wedin, a soft-spoken 58-year-old Brea businessman who worked at Shambra's right hand - for $125 an hour - almost from the department's inception. Always keeping in the background, Wedin works both sides of the government-contracting business: Sometimes he lobbies for private developers; at other times, he consults on the public dime, usually putting together development deals. A Republican Party stalwart, he evolved his business ethos in Chamber of Commerce meetings, where you press the flesh, make contacts, and put together profitable deals in backrooms by trading on personal and professional connections. His company, Wedin Enterprises, was an efficient shop, with his wife serving as bookkeeper and his children doing desk work.
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