Bell Tolls for Belmont 

L.A.’s bungled high school project finally done in by politics and money woes

Wednesday, Jan 26 2000
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
Student leaders at old, overcrowded Belmont High have had a civics lesson in action this month, but it has hardly been an uplifting one. They learned that their sheer will to get the new Belmont Learning Complex finished just won’t do the job. It didn’t matter how many times their protests got on TV, or how loudly they shouted, or how brightly colored and clever were their signs. It was all so much verbal triage for a dying cause.

The point was driven home Tuesday, when the school board killed plans to complete the half-finished $200 million school by a 5-2 vote after nearly two hours of anguished and angry testimony, mostly from project supporters. So many students, staff and parents from old Belmont High showed up that many had to wait in the rain because the boardroom auditorium was filled to capacity. The fate of the half-finished school, built atop a shallow oil field, had been in limbo over safety concerns at the site.

In the end, though, it was not safety but the twin demons of politics and money that spelled doom for Belmont. Had Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller recommended finishing the project — and had the school board accepted that course — district officials would have found themselves politically isolated in their backing of a project that would always carry political risk. Support for the Belmont Learning Complex has simply evaporated for reasons as far-ranging as Sacramento beltway politics, the L.A. mayor’s race, contract negotiations with teachers, the Valley secession drive and a unionization campaign at a nearby hotel. And one consequence of this political reality is financial: The school district alone will bear all further costs attached to Belmont, and going forward on Belmont also would risk the loss of future state funds for other projects. To stand against this tide, Miller and the school board would have needed a dose of courage and commitment to this project that critics would have characterized as foolhardy.

On Tuesday, however, the most intense heat came from project supporters, and the inflamed passions singed interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who listened as speaker after speaker berated him, Miller and the board.

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“We’re tired of hearing unmeaningful words and false promises,” said Belmont High senior Stacy Torres.

County Supervisor Gloria Molina mocked Miller’s assertion that “All difficult decisions are made in the absence of enough information.” “‘Facts will confuse you,’” Molina taunted. “Is that what you’re telling our students and the community? This community is entitled to the facts, Mr. Cortines.”

At this, Cortines could hold his silence no longer. “What you want me to do is keep the students and community waiting. There are no ‘facts.’”

“How are you going to make a decision, sir?” Molina shot back.

“Oh, we can make a decision,” responded Cortines. “We are not going to string this community along.”

But then, suddenly, Cortines lost his self-assurance. He was visibly stung when Belmont students reminded him that they’d been promised meetings with senior district staff over Belmont, meetings that had never occurred. And then board member Victoria Castro noted that the school board, on July 20, had ordered staff to prepare a feasibility study examining both the costs of finishing Belmont and the costs of alternatives, and that this study had never been done.

“What the board approved has never been shared with me,” stammered Cortines, who only recently took over as superintendent. He then requested a 60-day delay to complete the promised study.

Board president Genethia Hayes, however, would brook no delay. She recessed the meeting for 20 minutes, conferred privately, then reconvened to call for the series of deciding votes. Cortines’ suggestion was sent down 4-3. The Miller recommendation passed, including a directive for staff to return with alternative plans within 60 days, and also to explore selling the Belmont site.

The Belmont complex expired even as questions about its safety remain up in the air. The potential danger at Belmont comes from two sources chiefly, explosive methane gas and toxic hydrogen sulfide. Both emissions are released naturally and eternally by the shallow oil just below the site’s surface. And while technical solutions exist for handling the problem, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing environmental work at the site, hasn’t reached a verdict on the cost or effectiveness of a mitigation system. A commission set up to review the Belmont complex produced a worst-case-scenario cost of $60 million for an environmental fix. Most consultants and state officials estimate the cost of installing and operating a system for 50 years at $10 million to $20 million.

It’s a lot of money any way you slice it, and the result would be a safety system more extended and detailed than has ever been tried at a school, one that could never absolutely remove all risk.

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