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
Most of the time, the path of least resistance was to build no school at all. Instead, officials changed school calendars to year-round, stuck students on buses and chopped up playgrounds by slapping down portables. The resulting mega-campuses -- elementary schools with 2,000 students -- were no one’s idea of a good setting for education, but they were politically acceptable. Of course, such stratagems drove away middle-class families -- they could afford to move, or use private schools -- but then, L.A. Unified had little space for these students anyway.
Belmont or Bust
It‘s hard to build anything without money, and a shortage of state construction funding has persistently plagued L.A. Unified over the past 30 years. During some periods, the well was dry; no districts were getting appropriations. At other times, L.A. was simply unable to compete. To break this logjam of failure, then--Superintendent Bill Anton asked his longtime friend and colleague Dom Shambra to make something happen.
Shambra’s prime mission was to organize projects that could generate income and thus offset the shortage of state funds. Early on, his team rhapsodized about developing a 40-story high-rise, as well as a commercial strip, on the Wilshire Boulevard frontage of the Ambassador site. But when that project stalled, Shambra switched his sights to what would become the Belmont Learning Complex.
The school was marketed as the district‘s flagship high school, a flashy symbol that poor minority children deserved the best and would get it. All of which masked a less glamorous subtext, that the district was assembling a serviceable big box to cram in as many students as possible, because so many other efforts to house students had failed. In this instance, Shambra and the school board overreached, trying too hard to include a shopping center and underestimating the impact of environmental issues and project opponents.
Some $200 million later, the learning complex stands half-finished on the western edge of downtown, the nation’s most expensive high school project and one that, it appears now, will never open. Newcomers to the school board tilted the balance against Belmont and in January, the school board voted to abandon the Belmont complex altogether. Many factors undid the project, but environmental issues commonly get the blame: The school sits on a shallow oil field that will perpetually generate small amounts of explosive methane and toxic hydrogen sulfide.
The cancellation of Belmont came on the heels of a similar decision in South Gate. That latter site, in the view of COO Howard Miller, would simply cost too much and take too long to clean up. Even though no construction had started at South Gate, the district had already invested $40 million and some 15 years in the project.
Belmont and South Gate ”were cornerstone locations,“ noted a former top district official who asked not to be identified. ”They were incredibly important to the strategic initiative of finding seats for students in two of our most crowded areas. They were also important from a standpoint of momentum.“
Indeed, killing Belmont and South Gate effectively ended the only two ongoing projects for comprehensive secondary schools that district officials have put together over the past 30 years. And this in a school district that needs nine new high schools right about now.
But the Belmont debacle had a more pervasive impact. Politically, it contributed to last year‘s defeat of three school-board members, the replacement of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, and the creation of an internal auditor’s office with broad investigative authority. And when this auditor, Don Mullinax, blamed a panoply of administrators for what had gone wrong, the school board reacted by getting rid of nearly the entire leadership of the facilities division, but failed to act on the imperative to replace them quickly. By this time, a number of key players, including Shambra, had already departed on their own. Meanwhile, Miller, who was hired last fall to be a facilities czar, rose all the way to chief operating officer for the whole school district -- and the facilities division languished without hands-on leadership for months as a result of his divided attention.
The new school-board majority took charge nearly a year ago, bringing with it an impatience for change that culminated in last winter‘s ouster of Superintendent Zacarias and the elevation of Miller, an outside real estate attorney who served on the school board from 1976 to 1979. But this appetite for action has not solved the facilities crisis, nor made any tide-turning headway to date. It hasn’t helped that Miller, who reinvented himself as COO, stumbled out of the gate.
Miller‘s first solution was widely proclaimed as brilliant, and embraced with much fanfare, when it was unveiled last fall. He envisioned building scores of primary centers for the youngest students, because such schools take up less space, and are less costly and complex to build. Elementary schools could then be re-configured to serve grades four through eight; middle schools could become small high schools.
Yet, in the six months since Miller proposed his plan, nothing has moved on this front. Last week, perplexed school-board member Valerie Fields asked Miller, at a public meeting, what had become of the conversion plan. Miller smiled ruefully: ”There’s not a single community that we consulted on that -- and I don‘t want to use the wrong word here -- that was not violently opposed to that . . . There was no split opinion.“