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
Another false start was Miller’s all-out push to file state funding applications. They hit a red light at the DTSC, which wanted further, protracted environmental review. In the words of one top district administrator, ”A lot of productive work got lost in the scramble to produce applications for state bond money, which we thought we could get into the food chain by January. That was when we thought we could complete the DTSC process in six months. A lot of energy was wasted trying to jump through hoops for this deadline,“ said the administrator, who asked not to be named.
In addition, the statewide program to reduce class sizes in the early grades has further divided the focus of a district planners. In effect, the district has found itself adding classrooms without adding to its student capacity. And this project has not gone smoothly either. State officials are threatening to take millions of dollars from L.A. Unified unless it moves faster on class-size reduction.
While Miller‘s deputies admire his drive and braininess, they acknowledge that he doesn’t brief them on exactly what he‘s up to, even on projects that fall under their jurisdiction. Sometimes this style is merely an inconvenience, but it has also spawned substantial mistrust between Miller and the Proposition BB oversight committee, two of whose leaders, Steve Soboroff and David Abel, accused Miller of stonewalling them on information about key district initiatives and repeating the errors of past administrations. Ironically, it was Soboroff and Abel who had prodded the school board to place Miller in charge of facilities in the first place.
Last month, when Abel hosted a dinner and workshop at his home for pivotal real estate and business honchos both inside and outside the district, Miller was not even invited. Miller, in turn, failed to sanction a groundbreaking conclave last week that Abel organized to break the stalemate over the Ambassador site. Abel claims that district employees were initially banned from the event. Ultimately, one was dispatched but not allowed to participate. No one showed either from Miller’s office or the facilities division. School-board member Caprice Young, hemmed in by meetings over picking a new superintendent, attended the five-hour gathering for about 30 minutes.
In an interview, Miller said that district lawyers advised staff not to participate. ”Most of the people on that panel are people we are in litigation with, counsel for those people or people who have threatened litigation on this, such as the Los Angeles Conservancy. It sounded like good counsel to me.“
The personal conflict is especially relevant because Abel also presides over New Schools Better Neighborhoods, a recently established coalition that is seeking to build community support for new schools. After observing one failure after another, Abel concluded that the school district must involve communities from the start in the site-selection and school-construction processes -- both to benefit from the community‘s input and to keep residents and business people working with the district rather than against it.
Miller has said he generally supports Abel’s push for community involvement, but insisted that he also has to rely on his own judgment about what processes will build the most schools the fastest. In an interview last week, he emphasized that he has tried to follow closely the spirit of what Abel advocates. ”We‘ve hired a full-time community-outreach director,“ he said, ”and engaged half a dozen community-outreach firms. We’re committed to community outreach as part of this process.“
After a false start, Miller‘s staff adopted the Abel approach in South Gate, with a promising result. Community leaders helped to select an alternative high school site, the old General Motors plant, and then worked to win broad support for the plan.
”South Gate is a perfect example of taking the time to do it right,“ said Kathi Littman, the district’s director of new construction. ”The entire community outreach took less than eight weeks. We have other properties that we‘ve spent five months on and, because of community opposition, we haven’t gotten off the ground.“
To date, no one has successfully addressed the Belmont debacle. Most of the proposed alternatives to the learning complex quickly fell by the wayside. ”They‘re rehashing stuff that’s been looked at before,“ commented one district administrator, who asked not to be named. ”They‘re chasing down alleys we looked at five, 10, 12 years ago.“
For all its drawbacks, the Belmont complex may be a necessary quick fix. In fact, most current and former facilities managers agree, off the record at least, that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to foresee any new high school project in the Belmont area that would deliver a school nearly as soon as finishing the abandoned learning complex. Although reputable critics insist that Belmont can never be made safe, that is not the general opinion of top DTSC officials, the same people who have been castigated by district officials as obstructionist, slow-moving and overly cautious in their safety reviews of other sites. A thorough review could have been completed months ago if the school district had set about the task in earnest, according to Hamid Saebfar, a senior DTSC administrator. He added that the safety review ground to a near halt months before the school board actually voted in January to cancel the project.
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