By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
LAUSD A.D. (After Dom)
The Belmont complex was supposed to be a career-capping achievement for the 59-year-old Shambra, a project that would set a standard for speed and economy, charting a new course for building schools while also erecting a school, retail and housing compound unlike any other. And though Shambra will see the school portion built, he's also tasted the bitterness of a project that has come instead to symbolize overreaching zeal, misleading promises and rising costs.
A former school-board member in the Alhambra area, Shambra always was an avid political poker player, but he never read the cards right on Belmont.
In particular, he improperly gauged the impact of a labor dispute at the downtown New Otani Hotel between hotel owner Kajima and Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, which adopted an "anybody but Kajima" stance on Belmont. From that moment forward, Shambra's crew was illuminated with a a glare that would expose all ethical and strategic missteps. All of a sudden, if Shambra changed his price estimates or fibbed about the certainty of state funding, his words entered transcripts and press releases.
Shambra responded gamely; with an assist from school-board member Vickie Castro, he was able to bus in crowds of cheering students and parents to public meetings, and he knew the words to woo most school-board members. But the furor over Belmont expanded entirely beyond his ability to control the spin. It rankled Shambra to no end that his project had to endure unprecedented scrutiny while district boondoggles elsewhere slid by almost unnoticed.
Perhaps the last straw came in November, when the school board mustered enough indignance to mount a surgical strike against two consulting contracts Shambra had submitted for his friend Wedin. This was a school-board majority that had come to view Shambra as more a public-relations pariah than a prophet for prosperity. "Mixed use" had lost its magic, given that L.A. voters had just approved billions in school-construction bonds. And too, Shambra had lost his support from the superintendent’s office. New schools chief Ruben Zacarias acted as though he’d never heard of Belmont when he sought the top job - even though Shambra had cc’d hundreds of documents to his office.
The Belmont project itself is rife with uncertainties. The land set aside for housing might now be used for a K-2 elementary school. Lobbying from Local 11 has hindered the securing of retail tenants for the project, although the prospect for retail revenue never looked as healthy as promised. The union also is opposing school-district efforts to secure city funding to build a swimming pool, a second gym and lighting for athletic fields. The union justification: once a dirty deal, always a dirty deal.
Teachers-union leaders have also been critical of the project, but they’ve abandoned their active opposition. At this point, they’d like to see state funding and even city aid "as long as the deal is clean," said Day Higuchi, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. "It would be unconscionable to start over now."
Still, Higuchi has no kind words for the people and process that put the learning complex together. "You had a department headed by amateurs at the job of school construction being advised by consultants with their own interests," said Higuchi in an interview. "It was very cozy. Deals got made. People made money, and schools did not get built. And the schools that did get built cost too much. We can’t afford to keep doing that."
With Shambra’s retirement, his planning and development operation has been consigned to the dust heap, with its remaining personnel transferring to other offices.
The consultants have scattered. Hanson said she billed about 20 percent of her $50,000 November contract, but will forgo the rest. "Because of the Wildman heat," she said, "I don’t choose to be involved in that program."
Attorney David Cartwright remains a key district consultant, ever more so perhaps, given the departures among the Belmont brain trust. His prestigious law firm, which gives LAUSD a 20 percent discount, continues to earn about $1.5 million to $2 million a year at the district. For their part, Vasquez’s architecture firm and Kajima have marketed Belmont as a success story in a push to generate business elsewhere, while Local 11 voices the opposite message to kill off these business opportunities.
Wayne Wedin meanwhile is waiting anxiously for the district to pay some $30,000 that he billed on work authorized by Shambra but not the school board. He, like Shambra, has contacted friendly legislators to complain about the Wildman probe and exert whatever pressure he can muster to shut it down.
"It’s a little galling to me," Wedin said of the bad publicity. "The soundbite that I made a million dollars rolls off the tongue so easily. I worked 12 years for the district, and I never once changed my $125 hourly rate. There are consultants for the school district today who make more money and have higher rates."
Expect Wedin to bounce back once the political heat dies down. He’s come back from ethical challenges before. Besides, the Panama project is going well, and reportedly other opportunities await in Bolivia. If he needs an associate, there’s a promising new consultant who is looking to enter the biz after years in government service: one Dominic Shambra.