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
Following a year of environmental scandals that stalled construction projects and cost the L.A. Unified School District millions of dollars, a specially appointed team of environmental consultants accused district bureaucrats of failing to follow their superintendent’s own safety directives, the Weeklyhas learned. The consultants nearly resigned over the matter.
"District staff is responding far too slowly" in ensuring that sites for new schools are free from toxic contamination, the consultants wrote in a confidential April 30 memo to senior management. "Resistance from middle managers" and "lack of leadership," is "threatening unified policy reforms from taking hold."
Although the discord has been patched over for now, the memo presents a starkly different picture than press releases trumpeting a no-holds-barred commitment to safe school sites at the Los Angeles Unified School District. Behind the scenes, district officials and consultants have disagreed on how to handle potentially contaminated school sites, such as the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex.
The disputes have simmered over the past year, as the school system was beset by environmental scandals at Belmont and the recently completed Jefferson Middle School as well as by turmoil within the district’s Environmental Health and Safety Office, which has run through four directors over the last year. This spring, L.A. schools Superintendent Ruben Zacarias tried to put the matter to rest by pledging that all prospective school sites be certified as safe by the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. The issue is timely for L.A. Unified, which hopes to build more than 90 schools in the next few years, but has access to few parcels that are both "clean" and available.
The March commitment to state oversight was the product of intense negotiations strong-armed by state Senator Tom Hayden (D–Los Angeles), a staunch environmentalist and also a longtime school-district critic. But the school district had already started to tackle the issue months before, when it appointed a "school-safety team" of hand-picked consultants, first to deal with the problems at Jefferson Middle School, then to oversee the handling of other toxic hot spots. By April, however, less than two months after Zacarias’ pronouncement, these same consultants were beginning to have doubts.
In the memo, they asserted that school district "middle managers" were resisting the reforms promised by Zacarias. And senior officials were exacerbating the situation because they couldn’t agree on environmental policy; some were comfortable with strict environmental controls, while others were looking for wiggle room. Although the memo names none of the entrenched district bureaucrats who have ignored the reform drive over the past six months, the buck clearly stops at the desk of Chief Administrative Officer David Koch, to whom the memo was addressed. "We believe the most serious deficiency is the lack of firm direction to both the Safety Team and mid-level management . . . There is no clear path of accountability." (In an interview, Koch characterized disagreements over environmental matters as a "healthy exchange of ideas.") The memo was sent by consultants Angelo Bellomo, a former state toxics official; Barry Groveman, a private attorney who once prosecuted environmental crimes for the District Attorney’s Office; and Tom Soto, a Santa Monica– based public-relations and environmental-policy specialist.
Although the notion of insuring safe schools is the ultimate no-brainer, the safety team was implanted within a bureaucracy that is often hostile to outsiders, one that operates under directives that "compete" with environmental activism, such as the need to hold down costs or to build schools quickly to spare children from long bus rides outside their neighborhoods. In recent years, old-guard district bureaucrats have downplayed safety concerns at the Belmont site, an old oil field, and at Jefferson, a former industrial parcel that is next to a property so hazardous that it’s a state-designated "Superfund" site because of the toxic waste there. To them, safety-team members were environmental opportunists scoring consulting fees by seizing upon exaggerated fears fanned by politicians seeking press.
Predictably, and almost instinctively, the school system developed an alternative to the no-compromise — but costly and time-consuming — practices pushed for by the safety team. It came in the form of newly hired staff attorney Bradley Hogin and outside lawyers from McClintock, Weston, Benshoof, Rochefort, Rubalcava & MacCuish. Hogin has lawyered for both government agencies and business clients, while the McClintock firm has primarily represented private industry, including oil companies. Attorneys for McClintock declined to be interviewed.
The McClintock firm was originally brought in to oppose inflated contractor claims at Belmont but suddenly began analyzing environmental legislation and, according to sources, briefing district witnesses before they testified at a March legislative hearing into the Belmont environmental morass. They reportedly told district staffers to hold their heads high, because they had done nothing wrong.
The new attorneys apparently took their philosophic direction from senior district officials, including school-board President Victoria Castro, who has denied that L.A. Unified was remiss on environmental affairs at Belmont.
Members of the school-safety team declined to be interviewed for this article, but documents and district sources indicate that they were troubled by these developments. Indeed, newly emboldened bureaucrats and contractors questioned anew the necessity of safety-team recommendations. These included installing a costly vapor barrier with an active venting system at Belmont — designed to dissipate pockets of explosive methane gas.