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
In the April 30 memo, the safety-team consultants hinted at their imminent exit from the school district over such issues. And on May 6 officials responded with a tacit acceptance of the consultants’ departure: "Your memorandum recommends that the Safety Team gradually transition to a unit comprised of District staff," notes the reply from Chief Administrative Officer Koch and General Counsel Richard K. Mason. "In general, we concur with your recommendations."
The district response memo made it clear that attorney Hogin, the new staff hire, would now lead a re-configured safety team, from which the independent consultants would be phased out.
But even as these memos changed hands, events were unfolding that would alter the equation. Hogin, newly in charge, was crafting a series of amendments to Senate Bill 162, a school-district-sponsored measure that would establish regulations on how to handle contaminated school sites.
But when Senator Hayden saw the amendments, he went ballistic, immediately firing off a five-page letter to Superintendent Zacarias. "I am sorry to say that recent developments concerning Belmont and other contaminated school sites indicate the District is retreating from reforms necessary to ensure that children are safe at school," he wrote, terming the situation "grave."
Specifically, Hayden accused the district of watering down the proposed legislation by excluding petroleum byproducts from being classified as toxic. The effect would be that fewer schools would fall under rules requiring full testing for contamination.
L.A. school officials deny weakening the bill, but they had difficulty getting their story straight about these amendments as this article went to press, and finally they deferred comment pending an internal investigation.
For his part, Hogin said in an interview that he drafted the amendments in response to general comments from lawmakers and legislative analysts. His goal, he said, was to exclude clean sites from a burdensome review, while also assuring state oversight of contaminated parcels. Hogin denied that oil waste would escape scrutiny, but conceded that "unintended" loopholes crept in elsewhere.
One would give school districts wide latitude for avoiding state oversight. As written, finding a toxin would not automatically trigger state intervention. If a school district, for example, finds benzene (a carcinogen) on a parcel, that alone would not be enough. First, the school district gets to guess whether the original release of benzene exceeded established safety limits. A school district wanting to avoid oversight could guess itself right out of state jurisdiction, according to critics.
Hayden will focus directly on these amendments and who authorized them at a hearing of the state Senate’s Natural Resources Committee, which Hayden chairs, in Los Angeles on May 21.
For the moment, district bureaucrats are on the defensive because of Hayden’s intervention, and that of outspoken school-board member David Tokofksy, who has proposed having the safety team report directly to the school board. The stock of the original safety team has risen accordingly. In fact, they are, once again, on the team.
And for the moment, Hayden’s staff has muscled Hogin out of the next round of amendments. Hayden said he expects the final version to require the cleanup — followed by a state safety certification — of any contaminated property intended for a school. He added that the school district’s "status quo" bureaucrats tried to limit the involvement of outside agencies and oversight "because they see that as an obstacle to building more schools — because it will increase costs for what they consider to be paranoid and unnecessary remediation."
Attorney Hogin insisted the district and Hayden are on the same side: "We want this law to be as comprehensive as possible. The district will not tolerate risk to the kids."