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
The unions’ reach on Belmont via Villaraigosa and others stretches all the way to Sacramento. In the capital, though, other Belmont opponents also have played crucial roles, including state Senators Richard Polanco and Tom Hayden, and Assembly Member Scott Wildman. Polanco (D–Los Angeles) is the godfather of Latino political ascension in California, and his early opposition to Belmont — and his preference for a failed effort to build a high school at the Ambassador Hotel site instead — undermined any nascent movement among Latino politicos on behalf of the largely Latino clientele in the Belmont area. In the last few days, school-board member Castro has cobbled together a Latino coalition that included the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the Central American Resource Center (CARACEN), but big-name Latinos were conspicuous by their absence.
Hayden (D–Los Angeles) used the Belmont conflagration to push for tougher environmental protections for students. For his part, Assembly Member Wildman (D-Glendale) made a name for himself when he hired a team of researchers, most of them freelance reporters, to dig into financial and environmental misdeeds at Belmont. At Tuesday’s meeting he referred to the site as a “hazardous, toxic pit” and the project itself as a “criminal venture” and the “worst public-works scandal in the history of Los Angeles . . . designed to enrich developers at the expense of children.”
For Wildman, Tuesday’s decision was a bellwether on district efforts to reform school-construction procedures. To go forward with Belmont would be to flunk the test. And Wildman’s viewpoint matters because he holds a seat on the State Allocation Board, which controls all state dollars for school construction. Such political realities gave Miller pause to consider that a decision to finish Belmont could place at risk funding for other school projects.
Closer to home, the teachers union also has consistently fought against Belmont. At first, the union was merely acting in solidarity with the hotel workers. But now, it’s a pocketbook issue. With no state money or local bond funds forthcoming, future Belmont expenditures would come out of the general fund, dollars that would otherwise be available for teacher salaries — let alone books and pencils.
Nor could a pro-Belmont board member find any safe harbor in the media. The Daily News initially supported the project, but reversed field after the district sought bond money to pay for Belmont. Over time, the paper used Belmont as a cudgel to beat up the school district and reinforce the paper’s editorial policy that favors breaking up L.A. Unified as well as the city of Los Angeles itself. The paper even assigned a talented investigative reporter, Greg Gittrich, to cover Belmont virtually full time.
Over at the L.A. Times, editors initially paid little attention to Belmont. That changed in part when the paper decided to back Mayor Riordan’s “reform” slate for the school board. Leading up to the election, the Timesassigned one of its own top investigative reporters, Ralph Frammolino, to cover the district, a mission which evolved into dirt-digging on Belmont. A key front-page story, by Frammolino and Doug Smith, focused on the district’s failure to pursue thorough environmental testing at the site. It prompted an uproar.
So who is left to argue for Belmont? Well, there’s school-board member Victoria Castro, who used to call at will on a pro-Belmont school board to push through any Belmont-related item. Those colleagues have left the board, or been retired by voters. Then there’s . . . then there’s . . . oh, yes, the student leaders at old Belmont High.
It got so bad that, last April, during a one-on-one meeting between Castro and Kajima executive Marvin Suomi in the bar of the Wyndham Checkers Hotel, Suomi proposed flying in former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to endorse the Belmont complex because it would include a health-careers “academy.” That should silence the tree-hugging critics, went the argument. Since then, even Kajima seems to have given up, focusing its efforts more on getting paid than on restarting the project.
“You’re betting on the seniors to graduate,” senior-class president Ana Fernandez, 17, told the school board through tears. “But we will not forget.”
“We are the future voters and taxpayers,” warned 15-year-old sophomore Sarah Rodriguez.
But that’s the future.
In the meantime, a half-finished campus, the most expensive high school project ever, sits mothballed in white plastic, in limbo on the edge of downtown, a monument to the spurned aspirations of 5,000 Belmont High students who, from the beginning, have been pawns of pro- and anti-Belmont forces more powerful than they.