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
Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
The Belmont Learning Complex has become this city’s ultimate monument to civic dysfunction. The $200 million high school, the state’s largest and most expensive, sits half-finished on a corner at the northwest edge of downtown,mockingly visible, for all freeway commuters to see. Nothing is happening at the site, even though the Los Angeles Unified School District desperately needs classroom space.
Belmont — and how things came to this — presents a latter-day parallel to some of the city’s most defining and ill-fated projects: the entombing of the L.A. River in the name of flood control, the theft of water from the Owens Valley to spur a development explosion, the roughshod expulsion of Latino families from Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium, and the supplanting of the Red Car trolleys by freeways, buses and SUVs. These earlier events, however, for all their psychic and physical scars, embodied at least some civic recompense, even as they shaped the enigmatic identity of the Los Angeles that came to be.
Not so with Belmont.
If the school board were forced to vote today, the half-finished school would probably be torn down, with the land sold on the cheap to a developer who would gleefully build on the very spot the school system now finds so objectionable. The school district would lose all or most of its investment, and another generation of students — mostly working-class Latinos — would miss their best chance to avoid overcrowded campuses, long bus rides or both. And the city would still need schools, and the school district would still attempt to build them, and somehow pay for them.
Conventional wisdom asserts that the Belmont project collapsed because consultants and district staff pushed L.A. Unified to build on oil-field property that is too contaminated, too toxic, too dangerous for a school. And yes, oil-field contamination is part of the story. It’s also true that the judgment of the original project advocates was itself contaminated — by overreaching good intentions in some cases, by ambition or greed in others. But the project’s greatest hurdles have always been political, not environmental.
The path to resolution, however, is stunningly simple — if the school board can look at this morass with fresh eyes and summon even a smidgen of courage.
A Weeklyinvestigation — including interviews with experts and a review of reams of documents — inescapably suggests that the school should be completed — even though the site is flawed and the project itself even more so. Though the environmental challenges are real, they are not considered insurmountable by engineers who design safety systems. It is a case where science and rationality have proceeded in one direction, while political aims, media coverage and public perception have gone another way.Romer: ”Wait a minute. This can be solved.”
Current schools Superintendent Roy Romer, the former two-term Colorado governor, may have enough political moxie to push Belmont through. At his urging, the school district last month formally requested contractors to submit bids and plans for completing the suspended project. Proposals are due in mid-July. And Romer has to be encouraged by the fact that, during the current election cycle, one candidate after another, both for local and statewide offices, expressed support for finishing Belmont. The major exceptions so far have been members of the school board, who hold the only votes that count.
“I know there’s a lot of history that preceded me, and I need to be respectful of this board,” said Romer. “My approach is ‘Get the facts on the table, and let the facts drive the solution.’ My gut tells me the school should be finished. We have modern technology that can prevent any exposure to explosive or dangerous gas. It’s been done all over this town, and we can do it here.”
Looking back, the environmental furor that halted the project was not, in fact, over a life-threatening hazard, but arose from an alleged lack of testing of the construction site. Nothing in the subsequent testing has demonstrated that the site is unbuildable — except in the eyes of a handful of critics. And while most of the naysayers are acting in good faith, it’s often difficult to separate their stand on Belmont from political and personal motivations that lead them to grasp at any reason to oppose the project. In particular, these critics have had to buttress their claims about safety risks by relying heavily on a self-trained oil-field expert whose unsubstantiated theories about the site’s dangers have been treated as gospel.
Belmont was brought down by a combination of sheer happenstance and political calculation worthy of a pulp novella, featuring a cast that includes an energetic, idealistic, angry former schoolteacher, an assemblyman out to make a name for himself, a lawyer who wanted to be district attorney, and Mayor Richard Riordan, who didn’t really oppose Belmont at all, but found it a useful campaign issue to exploit. The media also played a role, the L.A. Weeklyearly on, then the Daily News— which made anti-Belmont stories part of its crusade to break up both the school district and the city — and, finally, the L.A. Times, which was in search of a scoop.
The person most responsible for Belmont’s downfall is a 61-year-old researcher for Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, the masterful David Koff, who was recently profiled in the L.A. Times as “The Bolshevik Who Beat Belmont.” Koff originally wanted only for the district to choose a different developer. His union was embroiled in a dispute with the Kajima Corporation because the Japan-based company holds a controlling ownership interest in downtown’s New Otani Hotel, which virulently opposes the unionization of its workers. Koff eventually took on the whole notion of building a school there at all.Koff: No more “head down and charge.”
Though the merits of the Belmont project were dubious from the start, the Bury Belmonters have scripted the classic Pyrrhic victory: They will have killed Belmont at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons, and they will have done more harm than good.
The Basic Question: Is It Safe?
It is a different Los Angeles, unrecognizable. Oil derricks overwhelm a grassy hillside. A cow looks out, in seeming protest, at the pug Eiffel Towers as they march across the landscape.
The vista in this photo, reproduced on the cover, is Belmont, circa 1890. But it could just as easily be the next hill over, or the next over that — where the old Belmont High now sits. It was the same scene in the Wilshire district, near MacArthur Park.
Much of L.A. has been built on old oil fields, including about a dozen schools. At the Belmont site, which became a residential area with the decline of its oil reserves, soil testing and analysis found just about what was expected — potentially dangerous oil byproducts typical of oil fields, namely, widespread methane, which is explosive, and spot concentrations underground of hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic. As oil fields go, Belmont may be worse than average. “I wouldn’t have selected the site,” testified district safety consultant Angelo Bellomo in a May 21, 1999, legislative hearing.
The state’s Division of Oil and Gas recommends against building directly over oil wells — because there’s always the potential for a gas leak — but it doesn’t take a position regarding building on oil fields. The department also capitalizes on new projects, such as Belmont, by having contractors plug or “abandon” old wells to modern safety specifications.
About a third of the 35-acre Belmont site overlaps the approximate boundary of the Los Angeles City Oil Field, which stretches across nearly 800 acres. At the urging of the Division of Oil and Gas, architects placed the school buildings away from the portion of the site where the most oil drilling had occurred.
The question, however, remains: Do safety issues preclude finishing a desperately needed school in which taxpayers have invested some $200 million?
To answer that question, L.A. Unified, in November 1998, assigned a specially assembled “Safety Team” to review the project, which was already under construction. Its members and consultants quickly concluded that the Belmont site had never undergone a complete environmental review. This analysis was endorsed by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. The Safety Team later decided that safety measures planned for the site were insufficient, which is a subject of both debate and litigation.
District officials responded to the concerns, and by May 24, 2000, they had already spent $8.38 million on Belmont-related environmental work, tests and inspections. (Incredibly, May 2000 is the most recent accounting the district could provide in response to a public-records request.)
“Based on the information that we have seen to date, we are confident that there is a fix that can be put in place,” said Safety Team member Bellomo in his 1999 testimony. Bellomo has since become director of the school system’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, giving him a prominent role in determining Belmont’s future. In his official capacity, he remains noncommittal. But in 1999, he estimated the cost of a safety system at “somewhere between $2 [million] or $3 million to maybe $9 [million] or $10 million.”
Nothing much has changed on the scientific front since Bellomo’s May 1999 testimony, although the cost of a Belmont safety system could torpedo hopes of finishing the project.
But it shouldn’t, according to a September 1999 memo prepared by the district’s Independant Analysis Unit. This review estimated that finishing Belmont would cost $74 million less than replacing it. “We believe it would be significantly less expensive to complete and open the Belmont Learning Center (assuming it can be certified to be safe) than to abandon the school and build an equivalent school at another site (assuming an alternate site and the resources to develop it can be found),” noted the memo. This analysis presumes that the 35 acres of Belmont could be replaced with a single school on an environmentally clean site. The district has been unable to obtain such a location in the downtown area.
So why is the name Belmont more poisonous than the gases in its soil?
The Ultimate Opponent
Union researcher David Koff drives an old Volvo station wagon, sports a 16-inch ponytail and lives in Mount Washington. And if he’s not on your side in policy dispute, be afraid, be very afraid. If Koff had been in charge of the Gore recount effort, Gore would have somehow carried the day. Maybe not right away. Maybe it would be two years into the Bush presidency, and maybe Naderites would be forced to recant or burn, but victory would have been Al’s. Koff is that good — and that persistent.
Koff’s initial target was not Belmont, but the Kajima Corporation, because it is the major shareholder in an anti-union downtown hotel. The Koff strategy was simple: Pressure Kajima to bring the hotel in line by making the company’s life difficult elsewhere.
To this end, Koff had a scattershot approach. He would throw out any number of reasons for opposing Kajima and later, by extension, the Belmont Learning Complex project. He pursued whatever and whoever got traction.
District officials were among the first audiences for his Kajima dossier, replete with company sins here and abroad. But the school-board majority was uninterested. As long as Kajima could deliver a school and a deal, nothing else mattered. And when evidence called the deal into question, that didn’t matter either.
Koff also turned to the media, but for more than two years only the L.A. Weeklywas interested. In the latter part of 1995, I sleuthed around with Koff. The result was a 4,000-word piece in December 1995 that examined the dubious deal making and conflicts of interest among the developers and consultants. The article utterly failed to note environmental problems. Those were not on my radar screen.
Still, there was ample justification to oppose what was taking shape. I rolled out critical stories, one after another, with considerable help from Koff. For starters, the cost at Belmont ballooned to double its original estimate. The project itself was a needlessly risky combination of a school combined with housing and a shopping center. This shopping center was embedded into the base of a concrete podium. Above the retail space was parking, and above that were classroom buildings. Creating this podium increased construction costs by about $7 million.
The year 1995, when L.A. Unified entered exclusive negotiations with the favored developer, would have been a propitious time to call things off. Or in 1996, before architects and developers fees were set in place by contract. Or even as late as mid-1997, when the district signed a construction agreement and broke ground. But a district team headed by Planning and Development director Dominic Shambra seemed to have all the strategic answers. Most important, they maintained a thin but steadfast four-member majority on the seven-person school board.
The closest call was in February 1997, the weekend before the school board was set to approve the final construction contract. In the days leading up to the scheduled vote, L.A. played host to a gathering of the AFL-CIO’s executive committee. Union activists took advantage of the occasion to engineer public demonstrations at the New Otani Hotel, as well as behind-the-scenes arm twisting on Belmont: That week, labor leaders sent a clear but secret message to the Board of Education, one that has not been previously disclosed. Reconsider the Belmont contract with Kajima, they said, or risk losing labor’s support for Proposition BB, the school district’s upcoming bond issue.
Former school-board member Mark Slavkin recalls one meeting in particular that included himself, a state labor leader, a national labor leader and former Assemblyman Richard Katz (who was chairing the campaign to pass the bond measure).
“They were pulling out all the stops,” said Slavkin. “My immediate response was, ‘Oppose the bond if you want to oppose the bond. Do what you need to do.’ But the board did have discussions [about how] any action on Belmont would just rile everybody up. And that we couldn’t pass the bond issue if it were linked to Belmont.”
Belmont project manager Shambra (who has since retired) remembers unexpected talk about postponing the final vote on Belmont during emergency weekend meetings with consulting attorney David Cartwright and three pro-Belmont board members: Victoria Castro, Jeff Horton and, by conference phone, Slavkin. (Superintendent Sidney Thompson was out of town for the weekend, but later joined the strategizing.)
“Dave Cartwright was warning them that this was tantamount to extortion and told us not to do it,” said Shambra, in a recent interview. “But Horton and Slavkin said, ‘No, it’s politics,’ and that they couldn’t afford to lose the bond issue.”
An earlier try for school bonds had fallen just short of the required two-thirds majority, so district officials didn’t want to go up against the County Federation of Labor, L.A.’s most potent political force. The Belmont bloc blinked, directing Superintendent Thompson to pull Belmont from the agenda. Little explanation was offered publicly, except to note that the package was not ready for board approval. It was a masterstroke of union solidarity for Koff, all the more so because Koff kept it out of the press. (This was one scoop he kept to himself and also one for which he shuns credit.)
Koff’s triumph, however, was short-lived. When the bond issue passed in April 1997, the school-board majority wasted no time bringing Belmont to a vote — and board members also made it clear they intended to use bond proceeds to pay part of the tab.
Two years later, construction was proceeding at full speed. The project still had powerful opponents, but how exactly do you stop the building of a school in midstream, when all the contractors, contracts and fees are legally locked in? The answer would soon become clear: by calling the project unsafe. And Shambra’s crew played right into David Koff’s hands.
Co-authors of Their Own Demise
Belmont project manager Dom Shambra was Koff’s worthy foil — a combative, profane former elementary-school principal with a yen for cutting real estate deals and playing angles. He stood out starkly in a bureaucracy where middle managers achieve eternal job security by learning to disappear into their shadows.
Well-acquainted with Koff’s hound-dogging, Shambra and his team began to shift costs, so that the actual project budget would seem close to the original projections. “Off-budget” items included legal and consulting fees, the cost of the shopping center, the developer’s multimillion-dollar professional fees — and the price of environmental work.
“The environmental documentation that had been before was not the best,” said Art Gastelum, a member of the Kajima development team in a transcribed interview with researchers working for Assemblyman Scott Wildman. “And we were afraid that there were some unknowns there . . . The school district was trying to, you know, cap their costs in terms of Kajima because of all the criticism . . . They were afraid that even though it was not going to be anybody’s fault, right, if the costs went up on an item like environmental work . . . nobody wanted to take that risk.”
A dollar amount for environmental work was omitted from the project budget, with the quiet understanding that the district would pick up the tab later as needed.
No evidence shows that Shambra and Cartwright thought they were compromising safety — they planned to address oil-field-related problems during construction. But this subterfuge, once exposed, suggested that Shambra’s team was giving short shrift to environmental matters, or even worse, hiding dangerous conditions. Their plan to “mitigate as you go” during construction underscored critics’ assertions that there wasn’t enough advance environmental review.
In the view of Koff, “The most impactful thing in derailing the project was Kajima’s greed, and the quality of Shambra’s team and Kajima’s team, which essentially became one team.”
But none of this would likely have mattered if Koff had not expanded his circle of anti-Belmont allies.
The Ragtag Assassins
A lot of these guys weren’t even holding down full-time jobs. The very idea was laughable, that they could bring down Belmont and, in the process, out-duel both L.A. Unified, a $9 billion bureaucracy, and its peerless law firm, O’Melveny & Myers, home to former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. But you get what you can afford.
Assemblyman Scott Wildman wanted to go after Belmont, and he needed some cheap help, so he began hiring.
The time was mid-1997, and the Belmont project seemed inalterably under way — but not to David Koff and not to Wildman, a politician in search of an issue. Wildman chaired the little-known Joint Legislative Audit Committee and was determined to turn this political backwater into a high-profile, combative entity. With Koff’s backstage support, Wildman made Belmont his centerpiece investigation.
To assist his inquiry, Wildman, in September 1997, hired Weeklyfreelancer Jim Crogan, a cantankerous old-schooler who penned theater reviews and considered it his duty to expose police misconduct. Crogan, in turn, assembled a staff of researchers — mostly struggling freelance journalists. Together, they battled the school district over its closeted records, eventually pushing boxes of documents into the public domain, which provided grist to any number of damaging articles, including the Weeklycover story I wrote in February 1998.
When Wildman’s investigation ran low on funds, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor successfully lobbied legislative leaders, including current mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, for more money, according to Crogan. After Crogan left Wildman’s employ, underlings Bryan Steele and Maria Armoudian took over and kept up the attack.
The background of Steele, a former teacher, was especially noteworthy. As a journalism teacher (without tenure) at Bell High, Steele had butted heads with the principal over First Amendment issues and other matters — and lost his job. Rather than accept an assignment at another school, he tried his hand at freelance journalism (getting several articles into the Weekly), through which he met Crogan, who later hired him onto Wildman’s staff.
Steele was eager to prove just how awful and unjust the school district was. Building on research begun by Crogan’s original team, Steele soon put together a report that listed L.A. Unified schools and school sites with toxic-contamination issues. Time after time, he found, the school district mishandled or concealed environmental problems.
Later, Steele and fellow researcher Armoudian would provide Wildman with damaging information about Belmont as well, which influenced Wildman’s implacable opposition to the project.
Anti-Belmont pressure ratcheted up further when state Senator Tom Hayden threw in with critics. No longer was Belmont skullduggery only the obsession of a union researcher and the L.A. Weekly, a paper that Belmont supporters dismissed as “pro-union.” Now Koff had Wildman’s legislative committee issuing damning reports and the imprimatur of Hayden, the pride of progressive politics. But like a starlet’s career, the Bury Belmonters weren’t going to get very far without some publicity.
The Full-Court Press
After the 1997 bond issue passed — and after the school board announced plans to use school bonds for Belmont — Koff fell in with an odd bedfellow: the conservative, anti-union-leaning Daily News. The Daily News characterized the Belmont vote, right after the bond election, as a bait and switch. The headline was “BETRAYAL,” and it ran above the fold. The paper’s outrage grew, in part, out of the district’s bond campaign in the Valley, which emphasized that bond money would be used to repair existing schools. Still, the ballot proposal itself plainly stated that bond proceeds also would build new schools, something the Daily Newschose to overlook.
From that point forward, dinging Belmont became both a cause célèbre and a daily regimen. Opposing Belmont also fit neatly into the paper’s campaign to demonstrate just how corrupt L.A. Unified is — and why the school district and, ultimately, the city of Los Angeles should be broken up, events that would make the Daily Newsthe No. 1 paper in Valley City, or whatever the new metropolis would be called.
For the better part of a year, the Daily Newsdevoted a reporter almost exclusively to plaguing Belmont, and the reporter, Greg Gittrich, was one of the paper’s best. Periodically, Gittrich unearthed evidence that contractors were glossing over environmental concerns. One article suggested that dirty soil had been mixed with clean soil to conceal the extent of oil-residue saturation. With Koff’s help, Gittrich reported in 1999 that the developer failed to conduct adequate tests for methane on a portion of the site that later proved to contain methane. And no safety system had been designed for this part of the site. It looked like a case of cutting corners on safety to save money.
All told, the paper’s coverage was a mixture of solid and less-solid stories, often slanted by anti-Belmont and anti-school-district pontificating. A good recent case in point is a March 2001 front-page story that screamed, “Fire officials ordered seven people from their homes near the Belmont Learning Center on Sunday after dangerous levels of potentially explosive methane gas were detected.” Lower down, the story reiterated that the doomed apartment “is perched on the Los Angeles Oil Field about one-quarter of a mile from the $175 million abandoned high school site.”
Somehow, the paper missed that the tiny multiplex is closer, just one block away, to the existing and operating old Belmont High — which has no methane safety system and six known abandoned oil wells of its own — than it is to the Belmont Learning Complex.
The editors were no more attentive in “Next Door to Belmont,” a later editorial that ran March 6: “Until last week, Mario Flores, his family and three tenants lived in a house on the same contaminated oil field as Belmont.” The editorial thundered on: “It should go without saying that explosive, highly toxic sites don’t make for good campuses. Students and teachers shouldn’t be subject to headaches, the stench of rotten eggs or the chance of occasional explosions.”
The school-board campaign of 1999 stoked such anti-Belmont fervor. All three successful challengers attacked the cost and environmental risk of Belmont to boost campaigns that were heavily financed by Mayor Richard Riordan’s fund-raising. The irony here is that Riordan never has adamantly opposed the project. When I last spoke with him about Belmont in February, he seemed inclined to support the school’s completion. But personal views are one thing and political exigencies another. Riordan was determined to oust board incumbents that he considered ineffective or too closely allied with the teachers union. And an anti-Belmont campaign was the means to that end.
The predictable result was an anti-Belmont school board or, put another way, board members who could easily attribute their political ascent to opposing Belmont — and also infer that their political survival depended on maintaining that position.
The L.A. Timesfinally entered the fray full force in the weeks leading up to the 1999 school-board election. The Times, it should be noted, had already endorsed Mayor Riordan’s “reform” slate. Savvy education-beat reporter Doug Smith was temporarily joined by Ralph Frammolino, a skilled investigator, to go for the jugular. In “The Bolshevik Who Beat Belmont,” Frammolino recounted: “In January 1999, mindful that a school-board election was just four months off, my bosses at the Timespulled me into an office and told me to start digging into the school district. I went back to my desk and called Koff.”
Frammolino quickly put together a damning piece that linked board pro-Belmont incumbent Jeff Horton to a Belmont developer who appeared to be brokering campaign donations for him. There was no companion piece, however, on the many donors to the mayor’s reform slate who had all sorts of business before the city.
The most pivotal story was a joint effort with Smith. Koff handed them what looked like the classic smoking gun: an internal district memo implicitly blasting Belmont project manager Dominic Shambra for allowing an inadequate environmental review of the Belmont site. The story ran on page one and caused a sensation.
The memo itself was overrated. It was, in fact, little more than a midlevel bureaucrat’s tit-for-tat response after Shambra bragged about how much quicker he could get things done.
Still, the story nailed two central themes: namely, that Shambra, for a time, had removed the Belmont project from the purview of the district’s own health and safety administrators, and that the district’s environmental-review process itself was wanting. Valid issues to be sure, but neither made the Belmont site itself a deathtrap.
No matter. Belmont was now a full-blown environmental scandal.
The Last Dominoes
When the Belmont project finally unraveled, the fallout ended the career of one superintendent, led to a bureaucratic shakeup and may even lead to criminal charges.
The stage was set for this denouement with the arrival of two consultants: Angelo Bellomo, a former state toxics official, and Barry Groveman, an outside environmental attorney periodically employed by L.A. Unified. Groveman and Bellomo were brought together, late in 1998, to perform damage control at a new school site where the soil was undeniably toxic: Jefferson Middle School.
Bellomo and Groveman soon became the heart of the district’s Safety Team, a sort of commando unit that took on environmental hot spots. It wasn’t long before then-Superintendent Ruben Zacarias sicced the Safety Team on Belmont. Zacarias also agreed, at the urging of the Safety Team and Senator Hayden, to put Belmont and all other prospective school sites under the purview of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Then, in September 1999, district inspector general Don Mullinax issued a scathing report on Belmont, alleging that district staff and consultants had violated an assortment of environmental laws. Mullinax also recommended that L.A. Unified file a malpractice suit against O’Melveny & Myers, the firm of Belmont consulting attorney David Cartwright. A trial is probably a year away. More recently, Mullinax has assisted a district attorney’s task force investigating Belmont for criminal wrongdoing.
But Mullinax has never advocated abandoning the project on safety grounds. He has been silent on that issue.
The O’Melveny lawsuit has added a potentially pernicious dynamic to the school board’s ongoing Belmont deliberations. The school district is represented by contingency-fee attorneys who stand to make considerably less money if the damages to the school district are substantially reduced, i.e., if Belmont is completed. (These attorneys include the firm Girardi & Keese, which was part of the team that assisted the real-life Erin Brockovich in her suit against Pacific Gas & Electric.) It is in the lawyers’ financial self-interest to tell board members that the malpractice case is strong, that Belmont is just as bad as advertised, and that the school district will make out big by standing firm and resisting pro-Belmont lobbying efforts — all in the name of looking out for the taxpayer, of course.
“If we build Belmont, the suit is over with,” said one board member, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have a very good chance of winning this suit if Belmont is not built.”
By October 1999, board members of the new “Riordan majority” used Safety Team findings as evidence that Superintendent Ruben Zacarias was not up to the job. Zacarias was replaced by interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines and Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller. Miller quickly became a resolute foe of Belmont, largely on environmental grounds, and his view was enormously influential with the school board. At Miller’s urging, the board voted to cancel the project in January 2000, on the premise that better, faster, cheaper, safer alternative school sites could be found.
During this period, board members relied increasingly on Safety Team member Barry Groveman, who was in the midst of an unsuccessful but opinion-shaping campaign for district attorney that cast him as the white knight of Belmont. His ballot designation was the made-up title of “chief investigative attorney,” and his commercials portrayed Belmont as an environmental scandal of monumental proportions.
Of course, canceling the project didn’t make it suddenly vanish. Schools Superintendent Romer leaves no doubt where he stands.
“I walked on that place within a week of being here, and I said, ‘Wait a minute. This can be solved,’” said Romer, who became superintendent nearly a year ago. “We already have $150 million invested in this project. But it’s not just economic. It’s almost a moral question. We are 220,000 seats short, and that’s a tremendous limitation on student learning. This school would provide 4,000 to 5,000 seats.”
Romer was unable to get the school board to vote for completing an environmental analysis. But he did get majority support for requesting a range of solutions from the private sector, including the option of selling the site. “If we do finish the school,” said Romer, “it’s going to be done to strict state standards. But about everybody says it can be done safely. The issue is what is the cost, and how can we insure this so there is no liability?”
Romer is far from alone in favoring Belmont’s completion — especially now that a “build Belmont” position no longer equals political suicide. In the city’s 13th City Council District, Scott Wildman, the unbending Belmont foe, finished in the middle of the pack last month during the city elections. Eric Garcetti and Mike Woo made the runoff, and they favor opening the school. “I’m in support of finishing Belmont,” said Garcetti. “The lesson has been learned.” Mayoral candidate Villaraigosa, who once helped fund Wildman’s investigation, now supports finishing environmental work at the site.
But don’t expect board members Valerie Fields and Julie Korenstein to change their minds. Said Fields, “I rarely, rarely feel that my feet are in cement on any issue. I’m at least up to the hips in cement on this one. I just don’t feel it’s safe. I don’t think that morally I could vote ever to open up that school and take the risk that children or the staff will be harmed in any way.”
Fields has opposed Belmont since she joined the board in 1997. She faces a June runoff election against challenger Marlene Canter, who said she’s optimistic that Belmont can be completed safely.
Korenstein, a longtime incumbent who just won re-election, has been against the Belmont project virtually from its inception. “I do not believe you build a school on top of oil fields,” she said.
When pressed on what makes Belmont different from other oil-field schools, Korenstein quickly turned to the theories of Bernard Endres, who came out of nowhere to lend a voice of scientific authority to the Belmont opposition.
Endres, an affable engineer with a law degree and a correspondence-course Ph.D., is a largely self-taught specialist on oil fields who has co-authored journal articles on oil-field themes. He regularly appears at public hearings and at Belmont-related press conferences.
Endres’ experience includes service as an oil-field expert hired by litigants after the 1985 methane explosion in the Fairfax District. In that litigation, Endres asserted that the drilling practices of McFarland Energy caused the buildup of methane that eventually ignited. McFarland denied any responsibility and later settled the case without admitting guilt. More recently, Endres has allied himself with forces opposed to the massive Playa Vista project, asserting that Playa Vista, like Belmont, is unsafe because of hazards from soil gases.
On the matter of Belmont, the Weekly could not find credible peer support for Endres’ fundamental assertion: that the Belmont site is both unique and uniquely dangerous. It was easy to find qualified professionals who dismissed his reasoning as absurd, including officials at the state’s Division of Oil and Gas. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control has noted, in writing and in interviews, that the Belmont project looks doable.
Just Build It Already
The Kajima development team has been booted from the project, but David Koff remains on the case. He insists that the Belmont site should be sold, that it’s too risky to open a school there. And he blames Belmont’s creators for this state of affairs: “Our original allegations had to do with the corrupt way in which the bid was awarded, which in itself more or less predetermined the collapse of the project.” As for the impact of safety issues, “Had the proper testing been done at the proper time, the site would have been rejected completely. Rather than risk this outcome, the Belmont proponents scrupulously avoided the appropriate and legally required procedures.”
Koff characterized Romer’s actions as déjà vu: “What we see happening now is a recapitulation of Mr. Shambra’s modus operandi: head down and charge.”
The school system’s safety director disagrees. “I think that the district can be trusted,” said Angelo Bellomo in a recent interview. “And the way in which we have structured our review of these sites is by entering into agreements with regulatory agencies. So even if you don’t believe that the district can change, you can bank on the fact that regulatory agencies will be playing an increasing role in overseeing this sort of project into the future. Furthermore, state law now requires it.”
In a broader sense, if Los Angeles can’t trust L.A. Unified to manage a finished Belmont, then it’s time for the evacuations to begin. Safety problems of the same magnitude — or greater — are found at scores of existing schools. Arguably, students face a greater health risk from cancer-causing asbestos, a common component in the tiles and insulation at older schools, than they would from Belmont’s methane and hydrogen sulfide. Belmont, of course, would be free of asbestos. And then there’s the very real risk from cancer-causing diesel fumes that leak into poorly maintained school buses. A completed Belmont would help take students off buses. It also would be one of the only campuses built to current earthquake-safety codes.
In truth, all of the school system’s safety issues need to be fully addressed, and watchdogs such as Koff perform a public service by keeping up their guard. In that hopeful light, a safe Belmont seems comfortably within reach. It ought to be one of the district’s safest schools.
If the school district can’t address the wide range of safety challenges, then Belmont should never open, and perhaps all busing should cease as well. And at least a dozen currently operating schools should close too, including old Belmont High, Fairfax High and Francis Polytechnic High — because they are on, or near, oil wells or landfills. Plasencia Elementary and Union Avenue Elementary are around the corner from Belmont — and on the same oil field. The Union Avenue school has 17 abandoned oil wells on a much smaller site than new Belmont. Not any of these other schools has a safety system that meets the standard being applied at the Belmont Learning Complex.
In short, a functional L.A. Unified — or even a partially functional L.A. Unified — can build a safe Belmont. Conversely, a state of dysfunction simply cannot be allowed to persist, for reasons that go well beyond Belmont.
Would I worry about methane and hydrogen sulfide if my wife (a teacher) worked at Belmont? No. Would I send my child to Belmont? Yes — unless, of course, it proved to be a lousy school.
The investigators and whistle blowers have done a service by exposing what went wrong at Belmont. Perhaps a better school district will result. However, insisting on the project’s annihilation — at this late date — serves other agendas, while abusing the children of Los Angeles.