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No Vacancy 

The school district's space crunch is much worse than you know. And no one has a plan that will fix it.

Wednesday, Jun 7 2000
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The Ugly Reality

Forget math and reading programs. Forget teacher accountability. Forget social promotion. The Los Angeles Unified School District faces a more basic looming catastrophe: space. The school system is about to put out a no-vacancy sign, with thousands of children waiting at the door. And the space race is all but lost.

Over the next 10 years, the already overcrowded school district is expected to grow from 711,000 students to well over 800,000. That increase will require L.A. Unified to build from scratch the equivalent of a school district larger than Long Beach Unified, which itself is the state‘s third largest.

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So, how many schools does LAUSD currently have under construction? None.

How many new school projects are likely to receive state funding in the next year? One, a small primary center.

And how many completed applications has the district filed requesting state funding? One, for the same primary center.

As for the district’s most acute need -- new high schools -- how many potential high school sites has the school system acquired over the past 30 years? The answer to this question used to be two. But the school system recently canceled both those projects -- the Belmont Learning Complex and a proposed high school in South Gate -- after spending some $250 million. So again the answer is zero.

When it comes to building schools, L.A. Unified has suffered from unending missteps, bad luck, state-funding inequities and a general paralysis of incomprehensible proportions. For 20 years, the school system has known that this overcrowding was approaching. And the crisis arrived, right on schedule, some 10 years ago. It‘s gotten steadily worse every year since, and the worst of all is yet to come -- despite the recent arrival of a qualified team of real estate professionals who have labored creatively and shrewdly.

Over the next five years, every high school in the LAUSD will gradually succumb to a multitrack year-round calendar -- which increases a school’s capacity by 50 percent, but trashes academic programs. And then, even with a pervasive busing plan, more than 22,000 students will need seats that currently exist nowhere. If the district happens to lower its staggering dropout rate, the challenge to find space increases accordingly. Meanwhile, district officials estimate that five years -- the same five years -- is the minimum time needed to build a high school, presuming that you have somewhere to build one.

Consider this: It has taken Long Beach Unified some 100 years to build its 60 elementary schools, 15 middle schools and seven high schools. Los Angeles will have to do better than that in just 10 years, in a dense urbanscape, where the district must compete with private developers and battle recalcitrant property owners over whatever prime space can be found. If history is any guide, the school district is going to fail. Over the last 25 years, L.A. Unified has built eight small primary centers, about a dozen elementary schools, three specialized magnet schools, one middle school and zero comprehensive high schools.

And there‘s more bad news. It would take at least $6 billion to get all students off both the buses and the district’s educationally perverted year-round schedule. Instead, L.A. will start with $900 million from the local school-bond measure passed in 1997. And while these funds could be matched, dollar for dollar, with state money, nearly all of this state money is likely to go to other school districts. As it stands now, L.A. Unified would get about 1 percent of the rapidly vanishing pot of state school-construction money -- even though the district has 12 percent of the state‘s enrollment, a third of the state’s students on year-round schedules, and one of the highest rates of enrollment growth.

Considerable fault lies with the way the state awards construction funds -- and, in desperation, L.A. Unified and activist organizations have sued over the matter. But then, too, the district‘s own construction program has been a disaster, both in terms of putting projects together and obtaining state money to pay for them. District efforts have been distinguished by a combination of ill-conceived ideas, or abandoned ones, abetted by school boards that occasionally overreach, but more often capitulated to outside political pressures, at the direct expense of students.

More recently, the facilities division has hardly existed at all, because the school board elected to clean house in the wake of the Belmont Learning Complex fiasco. Assembling the newcomers took months, and they’re still learning the territory. It didn‘t help that new Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller managed to repeat some mistakes of the past, while also authoring some innovative miscues of his own. And this chaos could be repeated; Miller, as well as certain key interim managers, could depart within months during the transition into the administration of Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor who was chosen this week to be the school district’s new superintendent.

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