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
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
Last Friday found L.A. school-board member David Tokofsky standing in a dirt lot, gazing upon the massive, exposed steel girders of the Belmont Learning Complex, the giant high school project he had long fought to block, when his cell phone rang. On the line was the last person on earth Tokofsky could have expected to hear from.
The caller was retired district administrator Dominic Shambra, the man most responsible for Belmont, the state’s most expensive high school ever. Shambra has used every expletive he can think of to paint Tokofsky as Public Education Enemy No. 1. "Amoral," "irresponsible," costs taxpayers "millions," pursues "personal vendettas," were examples from a recent fax to the press. In private conversation the terms are decidedly more choice. But now Shambra was seeking common ground: He wanted to suggest other people that Tokofsky also could blame for Belmont.
Shambra had himself been enduring mounting denunciation thanks to the latest round of Belmont revelations. Methane gas and toxic chemicals have been measured at the construction site, and a state agency as well as a new team of consultants has concluded that the district failed to conduct needed and legally required tests, an easily avoidable oversight that could cost the district millions.
The most likely scenario is a budget hit of several million in cleanup costs. The worst case is that portions of the halfway-finished $200-million-plus complex might be torn down. Or that the site would never be certified for a school at all.
Shambra was the obvious target for censure because he commanded a high-flying, highly paid and virtually autonomous development team that included a private development expert with a history of conflict-of-interest problems, a consulting architect who raised eyebrows by later signing on with the developer that was awarded the project, and a onetime state school-building official who later became Shambra’s girlfriend. The team’s top legal counsel was David W. Cartwright, a partner at the prestigious O’Melveny & Myers firm who handled a variety of school-district real estate projects.
The team has since been disbanded, and by last Friday, the exasperated Shambra had nowhere to turn except to his longtime nemesis. He suggested that Tokofsky cast a wide net for responsible parties. Tokofsky later agreed: "This project had to pass through way too many hurdles to be the sole responsibility of our Ollie North."
Legislative hearings on Belmont are tentatively scheduled for March 18 and 19 in Los Angeles, and judging by the anger in some quarters, Shambra will need any ally he can find. "I am very concerned that the state was defrauded when it released millions of dollars to purchase the Belmont site," declaimed state Senator Richard G. Polanco at a press conference this week. "Retirement is not immunity."
In fact, Shambra has a point — through all the years Belmont was being negotiated, he sent copies of scores of memos and reports to senior administrators across the district. People ranging from the district superintendent to staffers at state agencies gave Belmont the thumbs up. And a school-board majority shut its ears to every critic, interpreting all opposition as political.
In those days, it was always the view of Shambra and Cartwright that carried the day. As with other difficulties, both men minimized environmental concerns at the site — and thereby achieved one of their finest strategic victories. They made their case about the safety of the site so well that even project critics tended to look past toxic risks to other issues.
Cartwright and Shambra never intended to put children at risk, but they were determined to keep environmental costs from sinking their grand designs, and in hiding these potential expenses, they shielded the issue itself from full scrutiny. Of course, neither Cartwright nor Shambra was an environmental expert, but they assumed that role and made all the guiding decisions. They particularly didn’t want interference from district staff, and they didn’t get much either, even from officials and departments directly responsible for school safety.
In retrospect, the environmental crisis was a time bomb lying in plain sight. Everyone who ever examined the site knew it was an old oil field. And though people do build on oil fields in Los Angeles, the Belmont acreage presented daunting challenges. The location and extent of all the old wells was unknown. Ground-water pollution was never fully determined, nor was the presence of toxics from oil production, gas stations and an auto-body shop. Then there was the construction plan itself, which required slashing into an 80-foot slope and erecting an enormous concrete base for the school, a massive overlay that could trap methane vapors, allowing them to accumulate in explosive concentrations. In addition, the once-spent oil field appeared to be repressurizing with crude and water, another hard-to-gauge dynamic.
The problems were so obvious that two outside experts proposed that the district maintain an active oil well that stood above where second base would sit on the planned baseball diamond. Eventually, that well was plugged, and a new well was slant-drilled into the old hole from just beyond center field.
In the end, however, it wasn’t the site itself that provoked the emergency, but how Shambra and Cartwright dealt with it — and how a regiment of staffers and officials stood idly by.