By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Part of the problem is that the DTSC has never played this sort of role before. Nor does the DTSC have the benefit of clear, consistent state standards for judging risk levels for children. And while all California school systems must now work with the DTSC, urban districts face a particular challenge finding clean sites.
Of course, the answer is not to short-circuit safety reviews. That tack helped get L.A. Unified into this fix in the first place. Environmental activists still complain of district bureaucrats who resist putting safety first. But clearly, no happy medium has been achieved. ”The system we have in place now is inexplicable, unworkable and promises to frustrate the best efforts of the leadership of the school district,“ said David Abel, a member of the advisory committee that oversees the spending of local school bonds passed by voters as Proposition BB.
The clock is ticking. Barring the success of the litigation, or a reprieve by state lawmakers, all of the available state-bond funds will be spoken for in the next six months or so. But it needn‘t have come to this. a
A Crisis Foretold
The school district gets a reliable estimate of its coming enrollment by applying a standard formula to the number of local live births. So where are the schools that officials knew would be needed? Or for that matter, where are the schools that were supposed to accommodate the 86,000 additional students who swelled classrooms between 1989 and 1999?
Frequently, school projects were studied, proposed, opposed and allowed to wither on the vine. Standard practice at the school district was to announce a site, lobby for community support after the fact, then absorb a public beating for being the big-foot government agency going after people’s homes, businesses and properties. In the end, the school district would usually back down in the face of public and legal pressure, resulting in neither a school nor good community relations.
By nature, school districts are politically squeamish, plodding institutions. And school-board members, who are elected by area, have been loath to oppose activists who rise within their districts. In the backwater of a school-board election, one or two influential malcontents can make a difference.
”When there is a significant political player in town opposing a school project, members of the Board of Education ultimately do not sustain opposition to those people -- they fold,“ said one former district administrator, who believes the new school board made scapegoats of district staff in the wake of Belmont and other misfortunes. The real culprit, said this administrator, has been a lack of political will on the part of the school board. The one time the board held firm, he added, was on the school proposed long ago for the site of the Ambassador Hotel, ”and that‘s because the major competing developer, Donald Trump, had no political base in this town.“
The duel against Trump -- and a consortium of fellow investors -- was a prime example of how the district squandered an inordinate amount of time and money and still failed to build a school, although, incredibly, the game is not over yet. The Ambassador saga was originally portrayed as right triumphing over capitalist might. Trump wanted to build the world’s tallest building. L.A. Unified -- led by then--school-board member Jackie Goldberg -- wanted to build a badly needed school.
The school district won the political and legal battle to condemn the property, but then abandoned the cause when the recession lowered property values, opening up a different, faster and seemingly cheaper opportunity in the Belmont area.
Further legal skirmishes have effectively tied up the Ambassador site for use by anybody for more than 10 years. The district could not close out a deal even when the recession-struck investors wanted to sell out. Now that the school district is hot for the site again, the recession is over. Trump surrendered most of his stake in 1998, but the remaining beleaguered investors are seeking to salvage some financial gain. City Councilman Nate Holden, who represents the area, opposes any sort of high school in the heart of the Wilshire commercial district. And on it goes.
In the 1980s, even as the Ambassador drama was playing out, the struggle to build something -- anything -- led district officials to make a conscious decision to avoid using government condemnation powers to take residential property. After all, the school board did not wish to punish the same families for whom they were seeking to build schools. Nor could they stomach the political heat.
”School-board members didn‘t want to take homes,“ recalls another former district administrator. ”They would tell us, ’Why can‘t you just find commercial property where you can buy off merchants?’ I am told this directive was never reflected in a written policy, but it was certainly the sentiment.“
Yet prime commercial properties such as the Ambassador have been vigorously contested. District staffers turned their attention to less desirable land, especially contaminated industrial parcels. By taking this land, the district would get its schools, and the surrounding community would benefit from the cleanup of an eyesore. Thus Jefferson Middle School was erected on the location of a furniture factory. And city officials in South Gate steered school-district attention to the city‘s old industrial quarter, while setting aside the cleaner site of a shuttered General Motors plant for the future development of a shiny, new industrial park. Meanwhile, in downtown L.A., the infamous Belmont project was begun as a modest middle school atop an orphaned oil field, one that private developers did not covet.
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