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Wanted: Backbone 

School board let the public down on Belmont

Wednesday, Feb 2 2000
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So, in the end, the Eastside community was right about Ruben Zacarias and I was wrong. All I can say now is that I‘m sorry.

Last year, it seemed time for Zacarias to quit. The last of the old-guard Los Angeles Unified School District supers, he made a career of hearing nothing he didn’t want to hear, of doing nothing he didn‘t want to do. While not as deeply dyed as his predecessors in the foul broth of the Belmont scandal, he was tinted by it.

And he’s on the record as protecting, and even promoting, some of the most malfeasant members of the Belmont team. So it was tempting to agree, as part of the bureaucratic clean-sweep mandate of the new school board, that Zacarias had to go. Even if he weren‘t so resistant to its new members’ will. That may not have been altogether his fault; it may have been impossible for him, after heading one way in a 33-year LAUSD career, to change direction.

But, as many Eastsiders said when the board cast him out, he is one of ours: We trust him. And we still don‘t have enough of our own in places of power. And they were right; for first the board took away Zacarias. And then, against their own select panel’s recommendation, they took away even the possibility of the Belmont Learning Complex.

My colleague Howard Blume last week itemized all the political strings, obligations and pressures behind the board‘s decision to dump Belmont. To which one can add perhaps little. Except regarding the decision to dump the school project not after but before the full reports on the possibilities of gas-danger mitigation. Even some Belmont opponents have found this curious.

But that can mean only one thing. The board and Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller weren’t so much afraid that the report would find Belmont a total loss. They were rather apprehensive that it might confirm the opposite -- that, for $10 million or $20 million or even the named maximum of $60 million, the district could have its much-needed new high school.

Now, if the school proved viable, the new board members whom Mayor Dick Riordan supported in last year‘s election might have some public backpedaling to do. Although, contrary to what I hear now, none of them ran exclusively on the no-to-Belmont ticket. Miller would also have had to come up with a new line to the effect that, out of the disaster deeded us by the old LAUSD bureaucracy, we have to build a monument to our new, more open school-district process. And he would have got lots of heat from various quarters.

Too much to ask from Miller. (Mr. Cortines, as we all recall, had second thoughts about deciding without a full report on the price of fixing Belmont as well as costed-out alternatives; he was quickly shouted down.) The consensus was that we should put this little matter behind us as quickly as possible, and get on to other business having as little as possible to do with the timely provision of a new high school for the city’s largely Latino inner city.

As an expedient, this makes sense. But historically, the district leadership‘s step away from Belmont or any present viable substitute is astonishing. The board’s own Belmont Independent Commission said it could take 12 years to site just one more new high school in the Belmont area. More than 5,000 new students are expected in the area by then -- meaning that the district will need not one, but as many as three new schools by 2012. It seems that Belmont‘s symbolic value as an acme of official wrongdoing overcame even the possibility of its solving school overcrowding. As Leda Ramos of CARECEN, the immigrants-rights group, put it, “They don’t even want to hear the facts.”

Symbolism is powerful, but need is far more so. And the need is finding a voice. Last week, Maria Rodriguez, a Belmont parent who heads the school-cluster association, called the move “a breach of trust.” She pointed out that not only up to 3,000 high school students, but even kindergartners are being bused out of the area. She supports a proposed suit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund against the board. MALDEF, let us recall, has won landmark suits that provided Los Angeles a Latino-district City Council seat and the county with the redistricting that gave us Supervisor Gloria Molina. Belmont proponents also are backed by CARECEN. If a suit is filed, we can at least hope the action will remind our school board and its administration that the LAUSD‘s official purpose is to provide schools. Not to deny them.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Last week, one Rex Frankel wrote a Letter to the Editor contending that the area currently under development at Playa Vista is dangerous to human habitation. He said: “It is the city of L.A.‘s Building and Safety Department, in a report dated January 19, 1999, that reveals that explosive methane levels reaching 84 percent of the air in soil samples were found at the site of the ’affordable‘ housing and a proposed elementary school.”

Now, if this allegation were true, Playa Vista would be a time bomb -- one of the most dangerous building sites in the country. Also, if this were true, Frankel ought to be taking his information to the county grand jury, not a Weekly letters column. For if the Playa developers and city officials had ignored their own written evidence of such mortal danger, and were proceeding anyway to risk thousands of lives, they would be prosecutable criminals. I think the statute here involves “felonious endangerment.”

Of course, one might suppose that, if such a gas concentration existed on the site, its owners wouldn’t be building at all; instead, they‘d be exploiting perhaps the richest onshore natural-gas field in California.

There’s just one problem about the report about all that gas, though.

According to the Building and Safety Department‘s engineering-bureau chief, Victor Penera, no such report was released from his department, particularly on the date cited by Frankel. Indeed, it could not have been issued then: The department’s proposal to hire a consultant to prepare the report on the on-site gas situation at Playa Vista only went out in April of last year. The third-party consultant, Victor Jones of Houston, was hired in June 1999 to check gas concentrations under the Ballona area now slated for housing development.

Here‘s what the real Building and Safety final report does say. On the third page of Jones’ December 3, 1999, memorandum to the city‘s Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee, it is stated that soil methane was detected in concentrations of under 50 percent “in 2.21 percent of the soil gas sites.” Otherwise: “Significant methane concentrations (0.1 percent to 5 percent) were detected in 17.64 percent of the soil gas sites.”

Now, while these levels are nowhere near the alleged 84 percent, they are not to be ignored. Jones’ report recommended “methane monitoring and mitigation” systems to pull the gas out of and away from the construction area. He called these “essential for the safety of the project.” He also said the gas conditions might get worse in the case of future seismic activity, “which is a certainty.” I would personally suggest that any apartment hunter consider this prospect before plunking a deposit down on a place in Playa.

On the other hand, methane mitigation works. It has kept buildings with similar soil-gas problems safe throughout the Los Angeles basin -- the downtown Central Library complex is a good example, according to Penera. The soon-to-be-built Fountain Park Apartments complex at Playa Vista could well become another. (And so might the Belmont Learning Complex, as noted above.)

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