By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Any decision is better than no decision. The Los Angeles Unified board, calmed for a decisionless decade in its cultural Sargasso Sea, finally got decisive two weeks ago when it voted to unseat Superintendent Ruben Zacarias.
So did its appointed special commission on the oft-imprecated Belmont Learning Center a week later, when it recommended, 4-3, completion of the school, despite the now well-known flammable-gas pollution on its oil-well-perforated site. (I’d like to point out that former state Senator Charles Calderon, whom I twitted last week, voted in the majority here.)
There are a lot of people who like neither decision. I‘m not delighted either. The procedure behind Zacarias’ demotion might have passed muster in a Torrance ball-bearing factory, but it was no credit to the political sensitivities of board President Genethia Hayes. And to me, the previous board‘s selection and obstinate, politically pestilent defense of the Belmont site was the key symptom of the LAUSD’s mortal dysfunction.
It is better to decide than to stall. What persuaded me otherwise may have been the letter to the Times about what it‘s like for all the 2,200 or so boys at the old Belmont to share one working toilet. Maybe the presence of hundreds of Belmont students helped the commission decide as well. None of these students will attend the new Belmont. But they know better than anyone how badly a new school is needed.
Another reason to back the Belmont go-ahead is the suggested alternatives’ basic feebleness: A front-page Monday Daily News article by Beth Barrett pointed out how the school officials who originally forced the new Belmont project on us also made good and sure there‘d be no easy substitutes for their chosen scheme.
The first alternative given is rebuilding the LAUSD’s administration site into classrooms. Others include building smaller high schools elsewhere and revamping high-rise offices into schools.
These suggestions, however, seem rooted in future contingencies -- like changing state regulations on classroom standards and finding huge scads of fresh money. It could take another generation to spin any of them into a working high school.
The 700,000 LAUSD students can‘t wait that long. At the rate that our LAUSD does things, no Belmont alternative would be ready to educate these students’ own children when they become teenagers. If then.
Granted that the choice of the current Belmont site was one of the gravest errors in the history of the LAUSD: Why should its bureaucracy have a chance to choose an even worse site? Such as that administration campus (has anyone tested it for toxics lately?). Or a nearby 30-story high-rise (think: Welcome Back, Kotter meets The Towering Inferno) or an eminent-domain clear-cut of the downtown hinterland‘s low-income, largely Hispanic-occupied housing? No, Belmont is the best chance for the city to have a new high school by 2005. Particularly since the experts have said toxic mitigation is doable -- such mitigation having been accomplished, without problems, on 10 other LAUSD school sites.
But it’s important to remember that the commission that voted to go with Belmont also recommended that the LAUSD not be trusted with the long-term, costly mitigation process. Could the district‘s reputation for chicanery and duplicity really outlast the noxious residues on the Belmont site itself?
I hope not. ”One [other] factor that’s changed regarding Belmont is that we don‘t feel that we’re being lied to anymore,“ said an official long connected to that project. Partly, this grudging growth of trust is due to the elimination of three fanatically pro-Belmont board members in last June‘s election. Some credit may go to Don Mullinax, the district’s sumptuously entitled director of internal audit and special investigations. Mullinax, who had to fight for the powers in his job description, was the first official to lay open the misdeeds of the Belmont process, naming nine employees as responsible. He‘s also called for sweeping administrative changes in the district bureaucracy. At least until his subpoena power runs out in two years, the LAUSD board finally has its very own ass-kicker loose in the bureaucratic bullpen.
Soon after the commission went for Belmont, something under 400 Latino Angelenos gathered outside the LAUSD headquarters Friday (Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden also attended). The placards protested Zacarias’ demotion while demanding reform of the LAUSD. Talk about contradictions.
It is easy to grasp how seeing Zacarias treated so unceremoniously might create resentment in the city‘s largest ethnic group. Some of his boosters have even suggested Zacarias was the Latino Tom Bradley, which is zany, of course. Zacarias has, to my knowledge, never made a courageous public decision, let alone won an election. Bradley made Los Angeles what it is today. The best you can say for Zacarias is that he can’t be blamed for doing the same to the LAUSD.
Zacarias was just a time-serving, cautious player in one of the Free World‘s most ossified bureaucracies -- until he was picked for his current post. He’s since made plenty of promises, and delivered on few of them. This does not make him a bad man, or even a lousy administrator. Many critics agree he‘s a considerable improvement over his predecessor, Sid Thompson.
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