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Tempting Belmont 

School board can hardly refuse money for safety study of L.A.’s most troubled campus

Wednesday, Apr 5 2000
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Photo by Virginia Hunter

Two months after the school board killed the Belmont Learning Complex — once and for all, it seemed — supporters of the high school project have massaged a faint pulse back into the corpse.

The CPR has arrived in the form of a proposed environmental study to determine — again, once and for all — if the Belmont school, which sits half-finished above a shallow oil field, can be made safe for students at a reasonable cost. In January, school-district officials had canceled just such a study when they ditched the learning complex, which was already the nation’s most expensive high school project. Why pay to analyze a dead letter? they reasoned.

But for project supporters, the safety study quickly has become a strategic rallying point. What was the district afraid of finding out? What if a finished school were not as hazardous or would not add as much additional cost as presumed? The pressure from critics reached a new level over the last week, when no less than three offers emerged to pay for completion of the safety study.

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The first offer came last Thursday, from a member of the outside committee overseeing the spending of local school bonds. Bring a responsible proposal for a study, said David Abel, and he was certain the committee would seriously consider sanctioning school bonds to pay for it, he told district officials.

“The taxpayers need to know,” said committee chair Steve Soboroff later, sounding much like a candidate for mayor — which he is. “The perception is that it’s an environmental issue that’s keeping that school from opening. If the study shows that the school can be opened safely, you’ve saved $50 million or $100 million in money that can be used elsewhere to build or repair schools in the San Fernando Valley, San Pedro, East L.A. or South-Central Los Angeles. I don’t know what the answer is, but neither does the school district.”

The second offer came moments after the first, from county Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represents the Belmont area and has spearheaded a pro-learning-complex coalition. She literally rose from the audience to offer $1 million of county discretionary funds — in the form of either a loan or an outright grant — to fund the study.

One million dollars would be more than enough to do the job, which could be finished in four months’ time, according to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which would oversee the analysis.

At the Thursday meeting, Soboroff immediately seized on Molina’s offer, challenging school-board member Caprice Young, who also was in attendance, to accept the deal on the spot.

“I’m never one to turn down a million bucks,” said Young, haltingly. Still, Young, who had voted to cancel Belmont, was clearly reluctant to revisit the issue. What about underfunded child-care services and other county needs? she responded.

“It’s not your money, it’s my money,” shot back Molina.

“It’s taxpayers’ money,” countered Young, adding that it’s time to move beyond Belmont.

Interviewed after the meeting, Molina said that she would not simply hand $1 million to L.A. Unified. But if district officials prepared a formal request, she would sponsor an emergency resolution to make the money quickly available.

“I want to take away the issue of money as a reason for not doing the study,” Molina said.

The third offer was perhaps the most compelling of all. In an interview with the Weekly on Sunday, state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa disclosed his plans to seek state funds. “You gotta finish the study so we can decide what to do with Belmont in the future,” said Villaraigosa, who is also a candidate for mayor. “How do you 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.

The stances of Soboroff and Villaraigosa — two leading candidates for mayor — are striking. Until the March primary, conventional wisdom held that an association with the Belmont project was the kiss of death for a local politician. The project was tarred from the start by embarrassing revelations, conflicts of interest and questionable management, before finally grinding to a halt over safety issues. The school site, a shallow oil field on the edge of downtown, contains pockets of naturally occurring methane gas, which is explosive, and scattered hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic. The project also faced the skilled and persistent opposition of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees, with support from other unions. They entered the fray in solidarity against the Kajima corporation, the project’s lead developer, because the company has a controlling interest in an anti-union downtown hotel.

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