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Overcrowded and Overdrawn 

L.A. Unified has already started spending the money it’s seeking from voters next week

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
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The L.A. school district has started the nation‘s most complex and expensive school-construction program without having the money to finish it. And next Tuesday, voters must choose whether to pay for these schools, which are rising all over town, or to plunge the school system into a financial cataclysm.

Measure K, a $3.35 billion local school bond, and Proposition 47, a $13.05 billion statewide school bond, would fund the start and finish of 80 new L.A. schools, and provide seed money for 40 more. Measure K, as a local bond issue, requires a 55 percent majority to pass. Prop. 47 needs a simple majority. L.A. Unified must have voters pass both, because it has already penciled in the proceeds, as well as its share of another state bond planned for next year. L.A. Unified hopes to add 112,000 classroom seats in the next four years, but without all the hoped-for bond money, it won’t happen.

But that hasn‘t stopped the school system from ramping up in a big way.

Ground has broken for Central L.A. High School No. 1, at the old Metromedia property in Hollywood. And in South-Central at the former Santee Dairy. And in the Valley for a high school on the Cal State Northridge campus. The ribbon’s already been cut at the addition to Beachy Elementary School in Pacoima and at a new elementary school in Bell.

L.A. Unified has rolled the dice by investing every penny it can muster or borrow to buy land, hire staff, sign contracts, make drawings and dig holes. In other words, on Election Day, L.A. schools Superintendent Roy Romer is daring you more than begging you. Vote “yes,” he says, and the city gets 120 schools. Vote “no” and the city gets dozens of expensive holes in the ground.

“Here is where I am,” said Romer in an interview last week. “You have such a gross need, and it takes so long to deliver a school. Not to take a larger bite than we can afford would have delayed everything excessively. You had to take a gamble.

”You know, it‘s kind of like I’m a farmer planting a crop,“ added Romer, who once was a farmer. ”You only have fertilizer to plant 400 acres, but you really gotta have 800 acres to make it. You are just waiting to get the second bank loan you need, and it‘s planting time. I think you’ve got to go for what it takes to get the job done, and hope you can convince your banker along the way that, ‘Yeah, that’s the only way this farm is ever going to be successful.‘“

The banker in this case is the voter, who would have ample reason to conclude that Romer and other district officials are, so to speak, full of fertilizer. Five years have passed since voters last approved a local school bond, and for most of that time, the $2.4 billion in Proposition BB was utterly mismanaged. If that sounds harsh, consider that this consensus judgment was reached independently by inside auditors, outside auditors, an oversight committee and even school-district officials.

Prop. BB was intended mostly to repair and modernize existing campuses -- a ”contract“ of promised projects was prepared for every school. But many of the 12,500 projects fell behind schedule. Meanwhile, a plan to ”fast-track“ air-conditioning projects collapsed completely, but not before L.A. Unified had to pay $19.3 million to a Denver-based firm that installed not even a single air conditioner. The new facilities team, which inherited this train wreck, concluded that the budget would fall $600 million short of what was needed to complete promised work. L.A. Unified hopes to plug much of the gap by borrowing cash and with state funds.

Then there’s the $250 million Belmont Learning Complex, the nation‘s most expensive and still unfinished high school construction project. After dragging on for more than a decade, Belmont might also be the nation’s slowest high school project, except that L.A. Unified has taken even longer trying to build a school at the site of the Ambassador Hotel. Romer insists that these two schools will be finished and will stand as examples of the school district‘s new competence and accountability.

And that’s just the appetizer. In exchange for your vote, the school district pledges at least 80 completed schools within four years. Put another way, L.A. Unified intends to build from scratch a school system as large as Long Beach Unified, the state‘s third largest school district, virtually overnight, even though LAUSD hasn’t managed to finish a single high school in more than 30 years.

If past performance were the yardstick, a voter‘s verdict on the school bonds ought to be: No way. But Romer and crew have a compelling trump card: the reality of the overcrowding crisis in the district of 750,000 students.

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