By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Earlier this month, Miller had successfully urged the board to cancel a South Gate high school project precisely because of a multimillion-dollar site-cleanup cost. He could hardly be expected to pursue a different tack at Belmont.
On the other hand, the South Gate project, despite some $30 million spent on land acquisition, was in the early stages. The financial commitment at Belmont hovers around $170 million, and the final tab is expected to rise past $200 million whether the school is finished or not. Moreover, a Belmont safety system would derive from existing, straightforward and reasonably well-proven technology, and Belmont would be built to a higher safety standard than many of the district’s already-operating schools, including old Belmont High.
And a new school — even two or more new schools — is badly needed in the area. Nearly 5,000 students already are crammed onto old, undersize Belmont, making it the state’s largest high school. Board member Mike Lansing noted staff’s estimate that 2,000 additional high school students are bused out of the Belmont attendance area, while some 4,600 are bused out at all grade levels. Lansing joined Castro as the lone votes opposing Miller’s recommendation. “I cannot decide to blow up an option when I don’t have another bridge to go over,” Lansing said.
Although the school district’s independent Belmont Commission favored finishing the project by a 4-3 margin, it also raised so many contingent issues that the matter was hardly settled when Miller began his review. Miller’s original recommendation didn’t write off the Belmont complex completely. The project, he suggested, could at least help ease overcrowding by serving as office and warehouse space — and freeing other buildings for conversion to classrooms. Adults could use the Belmont space, Cortines explained at a news conference last week, because more is known about safe exposure levels for adults to toxins such as hydrogen sulfide.
While hydrogen sulfide is a real potential hazard at the site, the more immediate danger is methane. Here, the adults-vs.-children rationale completely falls apart, because methane is explosive rather than toxic. And adults blow up just as readily as children.
Project proponents quickly jumped on this point, and a school-board majority amended Miller’s report to drop all notions of using Belmont for any district purpose whatsoever.
Board members had any number of plausible reasons for voting up or down on Belmont. Still, it’s hard to believe that a potential political blowup wasn’t pressing hard on them. In last year’s campaigns, an anti-Belmont rallying cry helped throw three incumbents from office. It’s hard these days to find any elected officials to stand for Belmont.
Early on, city officials were supportive — and even discussed financial support of the project — but what can Mayor Richard Riordan offer now, given that his own political strategists used the Belmont issue in the successful campaign against the old school board?
The large field of contenders to succeed Riordan, which includes some movers and shakers, also has largely been silenced by political expediency. Take Steve Soboroff, for example, who holds an influential position not only as Riordan’s senior adviser, but as president of the Recreation and Parks Commission and as head of the oversight committee reviewing local school-bond spending. He once was downright giddy in his enthusiasm for Belmont. These days, his campaign staff try to give him credit for halting the use of school-bond money at Belmont. The exception here is Congressman Xavier Becerra, who on Tuesday urged a delay in the vote until alternative student-housing plans were costed out.
City Councilman Mike Hernandez, who, like Molina, represents the Belmont area, also spoke for the Belmont faction, but otherwise the City Council was a no-show. In other times, council support might have come from former school-board member Jackie Goldberg, for example. But thanks to term limits, Goldberg is on the way out of the council and engaged in a labor-backed campaign for the state Assembly. Local labor is opposed to Belmont, and even if it wasn’t, why would any current candidates for political office strap the Belmont albatross to their backs? The most recent avid Belmont supporter to run for political office was school-board member Victoria Castro, whose bid for the state Assembly was trounced, thanks in large measure to a labor coalition.
Labor’s hostility to the Belmont complex stretches back to the project’s inception. Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees joined the fray to oppose the selection of the Kajima Corp. as the lead developer, because Kajima holds a controlling interest at an anti-union downtown hotel. The union assigned topflight researcher David Koff to the anti-Kajima cause, which ultimately became, for him, an anti-Belmont-complex cause. Early on, Koff began arguing his case against the project on merit, not politics, and his research contributed mightily to early groundbreaking Belmont articles in the L.A. Weekly.In those days, it was Castro who held the political cards, while project opponents were pleading for delays and accusing district staffers of misconduct and improperly withholding information.
The union influence in local elections was as persuasive as the revelations that Koff unearthed. What chance, for example, does any mayoral campaign by state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa have without substantial union support?
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