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 Virginia Lee Hunter|
Every day, 500 students at Queen Anne Place Elementary in the Crenshaw District arrive at a clean, new campus, complete with freshly applied stucco and block-glass windows in the entryway — a testament to the school district’s multibillion-dollar construction program.
Problem is, students don’t go to thisschool, which is fenced off and empty. For the past four and a half years, they’ve attended crowded classes on the other side of the lot, where 14 unconnected, squat portable buildings are packed tightly onto half an acre. They can’t go to the new school because a dispute with contractors has left the nearly complete campus unfinished and in limbo. Until this week, there was no immediate resolution in sight, but on Tuesday the school board, faced with repeated inquiries from the Weekly, declared the situation an emergency and authorized staff to do whatever it takes to complete the new school.
That’s long-awaited good news at the temporary campus, where Queen Anne students are often crammed 40 and more to a classroom. Some of the temporary buildings lack air conditioning; some are rodent-infested. Because of the construction, the makeshift school has no playground, forcing students to cross the street to an adjacent park.
These conditions, which students have endured since early 1995, seemed tolerable so long as work on the new school was under way next door. But the school’s completion is now more than a year overdue, and since January, virtually all work has halted. The new school — more than 90 percent complete — stands like a mocking mirage.
"Our parents are mad at the teachers and me," said school principal Mary Ann Hall. "They’re very concerned, and they don’t understand why it’s not completed."
Indeed, for most students at Queen Anne, their entire elementary school experience has been shaped by the substandard, "temporary" campus. "The kids who have been here since kindergarten," noted one teacher, "they don’t know any better at first. But the kids we get from other schools, the first thing they notice is how bad the situation is. The new kids let the other kids know what they’ve been missing."
The Queen Anne project imbroglio underscores chronic problems in the L.A. school district’s management of construction projects — the scenario here is eerily similar to that of Jefferson Elementary, a South-Central school that has remained half-finished for three years after a dispute prompted the builder to walk off that job. Nearby Jefferson Middle School stood empty of students for a year while officials re-examined toxic contamination at the site — a problem that critics say remains unresolved. And the state’s most expensive high school ever, the downtown Belmont Learning Complex, has been mired in conflict-of-interest questions and cost overruns for several years, becoming a major issue in the recent school-board elections.
District officials avoid discussing such embarrassments, pointing instead to more than 2,500 projects completed since voters passed a $2.4 billion school bond in April 1997, including 112 paint jobs, 101 air-conditioning installations and the completion of two primary centers. Still, the ghost campuses remain empty.
"You’ve got to keep your eye on the ball, and the ball is to open the school," comment-ed Steve Soboroff, who chairs the community advisory committee for local school-bond projects. "All the bureaucratic posturing has to take a back seat to completion."
Until this week, even posturing would have been an uptick in response from the district. School-board member Barbara Boudreaux, whose district includes Queen Anne, brushed off a question about the campus at an April 9 school-board candidates forum, and instead focused her ire on a member of the audience who demanded to know why neighborhood children had to attend school in "pigsties."
Parents were to blame, insisted Boudreaux. "If your school is a pigsty, you should have been there from the beginning . . . As a parent, I would not allow my school to become a pigsty."
On Tuesday, however, following inquiries from the Weekly, the bureaucracy began to move; in a unanimous vote, the school board authorized staff to complete the proj- ect without further delay, even foregoing competitive bidding to find a new contractor. Officials now say they hope to finish the project within six months.
"Today’s action will allow us to move quickly," said school-district spokesman Erik Nasarenko. "The district has treated this with a great deal of urgency and timeliness."
This sense of crisis was notably absent for more than a year, as district bureaucrats passively watched the project run off the rails. In a series of letters and claims to the school district, the contractor, Orange County– based Lewis Jorge Construction Management, alleges that the school district provided defective plans and specifications, and then unnecessarily and even illegally withheld payments, forcing the company to walk off the job for lack of funds.
In a claim letter dated February 9, the contractor also accused the school district of putting political concerns over the needs of students. As evidence, the contractor cited its request to replace Magna Enterprises, a plastering subcontractor, for allegedly deficient work. The alleged response from an unnamed district manager was "No, this is a very sensitive political issue . . . The owner . . . is a very influential member of the black community and has connections higher up in LAUSD. We don’t want him to think we are discriminating based on race."