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
Trying to get into the minds of the current majority of Los Angeles Unified School District board members is often like trying to crawl into an impossibly small, dark, unventilated space.
Particularly when it comes to the fate of the accursed $200 million Belmont Learning Complex. It‘s now two months since the board majority sought to put the problem-plagued campus behind it forever, to terminate it with extreme prejudice. But instead of offering an alternative location to the Belmont Learning Complex -- which was intended to serve the growing inner-city student population -- LAUSD Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller proposed a hodgepodge of small high schools, after first floating the notion of converting middle schools to high schools, a plan that is no longer regarded as feasible in the Belmont area.
The proposed alternative locations include a portion of the Dodger Stadium parking lot and the site of the shuttered Ambassador Hotel. But both sites hit deep obstacles last week, leaving the LAUSD with fewer options to the Belmont Learning Complex, apart from continuing to ignore the need for it.
Dodger president Bob Graziano rebuffed the district’s stadium parking-lot high school proposal as “fraught with extraordinary hurdles.”
It looks like this topic is, from the Dodgers‘ point of view, undiscussable. Which means that the district would have to legally condemn Dodger property to get the 16 acres it wants. Taking property this way (district officials prefer the term “eminent domain”) can be costly -- the law decrees that the condemning agency must pay “fair market value.” But it gets costlier, because the condemnee is certain to take the matter to court to demand more money. This kind of litigation also takes a long time as it ambles through the court system with the deliberation of an elderly cruise ship meandering among the holiday ports of Micronesia. A costly voyage indeed.
A similarly difficult journey looms ahead at the Ambassador, where negotiations with the property’s owners have broken down.
Miller remains unfazed. At this week‘s school board meeting, he made it clear that both sites are firmly on the table. And should they fall off, he’s got enough other potential school sites to do the job. He did not offer information on how much it would cost to build these alternative schools from scratch.
Miller‘s Turn Our Backs on Belmont dogma, however, is going to cost the befuddled district in other ways as well. The board majority professes that it’s rejecting the new Belmont, which sits half finished above a shallow oil field, because to do otherwise would risk condemning its future occupants to a sudden and fiery doom. It is accordingly not interested in finding out just how really dangerous the high school site is. The board is particularly uninterested in finding out how costly gas-venting mitigation of the $200 million project might be. Better write the thing off as a total loss and start all over again, it says.
But, as noted here three weeks ago, the district has a far less credible motive here. It‘s to recoup as much of its spendthrift $200 million investment as possible -- even at the cost of rejecting a potentially viable school. As member Valerie Fields put it, finding out if Belmont’s safe would “diminish the liability” of O‘Melveny & Myers, the stellar downtown law partnership that the board is suing. In other words, ignore Belmont and pocket a bundle.
Now, O&M appears to have given the LAUSD some very questionable advice on Belmont, particularly as to the scrutiny of various expenditures. It also had some alleged conflicts of interest in the case and may have let the 1997 Belmont construction proceed without sufficient research.
Well and good, but if the district thinks it’s that easy to enhance the law firm‘s liability, it must have become addicted to bad counsel. The contention that, by unilaterally declaring Belmont useless, it stands to get more out of O&M is like an accident victim claiming that if he chooses not to try to walk again, he can win more in his case.
Of course, what really happens then is that the defendant’s lawyer orders a medical examination of the plaintiff. And if there is no proof that the victim is paraplegic, he collects little. The presumption is that if there were contrary evidence, the plaintiff would have produced it.
Such contrary evidence -- proof that the Belmont site‘s gassy effervescence is not economically remediable -- is exactly what the LAUSD board is reluctant to yield. Meanwhile, the defendant has shown its own findings. On Wednesday -- the same day the Ambassador setback was reported -- the Times reported that O&M’s tests suggest that gas hazards at the new Belmont site were similar to those prevailing at the old Belmont high school, which now accommodates 4,500 students.
The district tried to stop the firm from doing any testing. Then Howard Miller objected to the court‘s disclosure of the test results so far. Miller said the findings don’t change his position, due to the uncertain costs of gas mitigation. But as an attorney, Miller ought to be aware that, minus a certain -- and very high -- price tag on exactly those gas mitigations, the district is losing its case even before it gets to court.