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
The school board is now under increased pressure to complete the safety study, because county Supervisor Gloria Molina and state Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa have pledged funds to pay for it. And in a televised interview aired over the weekend, Governor Gray Davis added his voice to the chorus, noting that the state‘s scientists were optimistic about the chances for making Belmont safe enough to open as a school.
In fact, the district would stand a fighting chance of getting state dollars to complete Belmont if it reapplied for funding. The district allowed its previous request for Belmont funding to lapse in January 1999.
”If that money was left on the table,“ commented one senior district official, ”it’s because a staff person was afraid of being seen as pro-Belmont. No one wanted to be associated with it in any way. It would have been a career risk.“
Belmont aside, new-construction director Littman and Robert Buxbaum, the interim chief facilities executive, can point to any number of sensible, encouraging initiatives they‘re pursuing. Yet the school district is simply not on track to build the seats it needs. There is neither money nor time enough. As now engaged, the battle has already been lost. Which is where Mayor Richard Riordan comes in.
The Riordan Factor
The wags at City Hall and the school district once scoffed when Riordan talked of being the city’s education mayor. Didn‘t he understand that he could never have any direct jurisdiction over L.A. Unified, because the school-district boundaries extend beyond the city of Los Angeles? Wasn’t there enough to keep him occupied at City Hall? Some school-board members suggested that he mind his own business.
None of that discouraged Riordan, a longtime education philanthropist who was determined to make his mark on schools from the Mayor‘s Office. Behind the scenes, Riordan encouraged top management consultants to train district officials free of charge. Dissatisfied with peripheral efforts, Riordan ultimately mounted a successful charge against the incumbent school-board majority, triggering the nation’s most expensive school-board elections ever. On the facilities side, he helped organize the primary-center task force, with the goal of building 15 to 20 schools in two years.
But even the task force got bogged down by the district bureaucracy and neighborhood opposition. Riordan education aide Veronica Davey concedes that the task force fell far short of its goal, building just four schools. Still, ”That‘s 500 kindergarten through second-graders who would otherwise be on a bus for more than an hour,“ said Davey.
Riordan also has blessed certain district attempts to acquire land, including the Metromedia site for a new secondary school in Hollywood. But this level of support has not been consistently sustained. District staffers claim that the Mayor’s Office has distanced itself from, or even discouraged, the district‘s pursuit of some sites, which are typically owned by influential business people or major corporations.
”Primary centers are kind of easy,“ noted one veteran district real estate manager. ”Those are quick hits. There’s not a lot of opposition in most cases. You get easy victories, press conferences and grand-opening dedications. A middle school or a high school is always somebody‘s business or home, or on a contaminated site that somebody’s walked away from. I haven‘t seen a willingness from the mayor or other politicians to get out in front of that.“
David Abel agreed that the mayor could do more: ”Richard Riordan has changed the Board of Education, and given focus and attention to the school district. But in developing an institutional solution to problems, he’s not doing any better a job on this than he did at the MTA or at the airport. You don‘t have any clear, consistent direction from Riordan’s office as to how we‘re supposed to find these school sites, [or] on how to bring the parties together. I don’t see this kind of leadership. I don‘t see an approach that people can follow.“
Abel, in fact, suggests an approach that could make a tremendous difference. He notes that combining all the public funds currently available through school, park and library bonds would create a civic-infrastructure pool of $4 billion to $5 billion. This entire fund could be used to build schools if such projects also included community libraries, public parks or river walks. The whole city, not just the schools, would benefit from this sort of coordinated planning.
The money for schools, libraries and parks, said Abel, ”is real. The voters of L.A. and the state have come through. But the city and school district have not kept faith with the voters. Our mayor has certainly proved he can focus on raising money behind the scenes for individuals and campaigns, but we are without leadership, a vision and strategy for leveraged investment of these scarce funds.“
Up to now, Riordan has been most effective working out of public view, but seizing this opportunity would require a very public appeal, and then an open, fast-paced process. It would demand all the leadership that Riordan could muster, as well as the concerted participation of civic and elected leaders across the county. For their part, Miller and other district officials would have to surrender once and for all a go-it-alone, insular style that often has the district working at odds with other agencies rather than in concert with them.
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