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
Miller’s idea evolved from more than two years as chairman of the mayor’s Primary Center Task Force. This advisory group was established to help the district build 10 primary centers a year. “We gave it our best shot, and got four of them open in two and a half years,” said Miller. “But when that’s the best you can do, you have to try a better approach.” He added, “How many schools did the school district on its own start and open in that time? None, zero.”
The last straw, he said, was the misplacement of two additional primary centers. One of them occupies part of a public alley; another intrudes on private property. The school district’s full-time surveying staff, he added, is neither qualified nor properly certified.
“Through sheer bureaucratic ineptitude on a breathtaking scale, the school district has been unable to build enough schools so that children can be educated within a reasonable distance from their homes,” said Miller, who is not related to district COO Howard Miller.
At the moment, however, the O’Malley Miller plan is little more than a brainstorm. Noted Miller: “A reporter asked me if I could send him an outline of the proposal on paper. I told him, ‘It doesn’t exist.’”
In fact, much of the district’s facilities strategy is downright ephemeral. “It does seem a bit uncertain,” said one senior staffer, who requested anonymity. “We don’t know what it’s going to be like next week. I don’t think Howard Miller has any trouble making decisions. But the staff is having difficulty trying to obtain the information he wants and keep up with their other tasks. Mostly it’s a manpower issue.”
The last several months have seen the departures of the most senior district administrators with a say in facilities matters, but to some observers, Miller himself is part of the problem. “One of the historic sins of the school district has been a culture of withholding information with the idea that either people don’t need to know or that someone knows better,” said architect Michael Lehrer, vice chair of the local school-bond oversight committee. “In a public mission of this scale, transparency is of itself a huge achievement.”
Like other Miller initiatives, the conversion plan was presented “like a done deal,” said Lehrer. “The problem is that it’s completely dependent on our faith in the ability of one person, or a group of people, to propose a project of staggering complexity. Howard Miller is holding his cards so close to his chest, and I don’t understand why.”
Miller was not available for an interview, but has publicly outlined his general plans, and attended community meetings, as in South Gate. Miller does understand the importance of community buy-in, said East L.A. Community College President Ernest H. Moreno, who is teaming with L.A. Unified to build class space on his campus. It was at Miller’s behest that Moreno decided to consult again with faculty members over the joint venture.
School board member Caprice Young defended Miller’s ideas as holding great promise. “We’re still trying to get things done with a broken system,” said Young. “We have to fix the system and get things built at the same time.”
Inevitably, time is lost as Miller struggles to assemble a staff. The void is being filled in part by consultants and by business figures with ties to the mayor. The staff report on alternatives to Belmont is being assembled by Edwin Van Ginkel, of the Arthur Anderson consulting firm. Veteran developer and Riordan ally Stuart Ketchum has been sitting in on negotiations to acquire the Ambassador Hotel site. And O’Malley Miller has assembled a working group to pilot the private-development scenario. His team includes Anita Landecker, a business associate of Riordan friend Bill Siart, who has started a firm to develop public charter schools.
“Every time I meet a new consultant, I have some reservations as to why that person is here,” commented one staffer. “Are they necessary? What’s the real motive? Is their loyalty to the district or to their pocketbook?”
Some of the ideas — such as letting a developer finance a school — hearken back to strategies tried unsuccessfully at Belmont. “There was nothing wrong with the concept at Belmont,” said veteran developer Ketchum, “except that it was badly negotiated, managed and administered.”
O’Malley Miller will not hear of comparisons to Belmont, the $200 million school that sits half-finished atop an old oil field on the edge of downtown. “That project was totally wacko,” he said. “I’m suggesting something simple and straightforward.”
Canceling the Belmont project was a blow to students and parents who’ve watched the school rise for more than two years — and who were promised a new school as far back as the 1980s. Determined to offer a quick alternative, district officials have refocused on the Ambassador Hotel site, which has a longer history as a proposed school than even Belmont.
In the 1980s, the school district battled over the site with New York developer Donald Trump, who talked of erecting the world’s tallest building on the Wilshire Boulevard frontage. The school system had its own grand designs, plotting to use the 23.7 acres for both a high school and a shopping center, which would include its own high-rise. L.A. Unified used condemnation powers to claim the rear 17 acres just before the real estate market crashed, a critical misfortune in timing. In the ensuing litigation, Trump and fellow investors conceded that the school district had the right to take the property, but also contended that L.A. Unified was legally obligated to pay the market price at the time condemnation proceedings began. To avoid this financial obligation, the school district eventually abandoned the condemnation. Instead, district officials got state approval to transfer state money intended for the Ambassador’s purchase to the Belmont site. The district, however, continued to have a stake in the property, because its owners have never returned the school district’s $48 million deposit.