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 state’s most powerful legislator has cast his lot and the state’s cash with supporters of the abandoned Belmont Learning Complex project. State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa disclosed, in a Sunday interview with the Weekly, that he will ask the Legislature to pay for completion of a safety analysis of the site. Villaraigosa said he wants to settle "once and for all" whether the half-finished school, which sits above a shallow oil field, can be made safe at reasonable cost. About $170 million has already been sunk into the project.
"The school board made its decision to stop the project before all the environmental studies were complete," said Villaraigosa. "The school district should complete the study so that we have the evidence on which to make an informed decision as to the completion of Belmont."
Although Villaraigosa had expressed such sentiments previously, he’s now gone further – essentially offering the L.A. Unified School District a chance to finish the scientific analysis free of charge: "I want to remove any impediment that we have to fully reviewing this matter so that we can put this issue to rest. I will be making the proposal this week."
Villaraigosa, who represents the Los Angeles area, is a leading candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, and it’s not clear how his decision will play out politically. A new school board majority was elected last year on a platform that was anti-Belmont. But the importance of Belmont in voters’ minds apparently declines as political distance from the school district increases. City Council member Jackie Goldberg won the Democratic primary for a state Assembly seat last month despite her opponent’s attempt to exploit her early part in Belmont as a past member of the school board. And Assemblyman Scott Wildman, who played a prominent role in first investigating and then opposing the Belmont complex, lost his bid for the state Senate against fellow Democratic Assemblyman Jack Scott.
The learning complex’s oil field site is plagued by pockets of methane gas, which is explosive, and scattered hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic. Finishing a study on the extent of the hazard – and how best to mitigate it – would take about four months and could cost close to $1 million, according to officials with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). And while that’s a lot of money, said Villaraigosa, "You gotta finish the study so we can decide what to do with Belmont in the future. How do walk away from a $170 million investment without doing that? It’s irresponsible in my mind."
The state appropriation would be available in the fiscal year starting July 1. But the school district doesn’t have to wait that long, said Villaraigosa, who is confident that his proposal will be approved. The district could resume the study immediately, then file for reimbursement later.
While Villaraigosa’s gambit will be cause for celebration among Belmont supporters, some school-district officials are not likely to share the elation. Just two months ago, five of the seven board members thought they knew enough already about Belmont to cancel the project without further study. Recently hired Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller recommended abandoning the project because of lingering safety concerns – and because he saw no prospect of further state funding for the project.
"The school board and Howard Miller are engaged in the first serious strategic planning to deal with classroom overcrowding and the educational needs of the Belmont attendance area as a whole," said David Koff, a union researcher who has long campaigned against the Belmont project. "Now they’re encircled by political camps that continue to rain mortars on their heads. That is not productive and that doesn’t help the kids." He added that the DTSC estimate of a four-month time frame for the study "is as problematic as every other projection of what it would take to get Belmont finished. It’s no more grounded in fact than anything else in the history of Belmont."
The late January school board vote was supposed to be the final nail in the coffin for the Belmont complex. And for a majority of school board members, the casket was still tightly sealed and six feet under as of late last week. Of the five Belmont opponents, two school board members, Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky, have consistently opposed the project from the beginning. Two others, new members Caprice Young and Genethia Hayes, made voter disgust over Belmont a centerpiece of their recent campaign victories. The fifth "no" vote was Valerie Fields, who has made it clear that she would fear for her life if she ever had to step foot in the Belmont complex.
On the face of it, that anti-Belmont voting bloc looks unassailable. But it is surely being tested, and not just by Villaraigosa, but also by a coalition of community members and politicians. This coalition is aided substantially by the powerful law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, which used to represent the school district on Belmont-related matters. L.A. Unified is now suing O’Melveny for malpractice, and a pro-Belmont campaign is a central part of the firm’s attempts to limit potential liability.