Belmont Eternal 

School project brings out the best — and worst — in board members

Thursday, May 29 2003

The school board’s divided go-ahead vote last week on the Belmont Learning Complex made it clear that the battle over the nation’s most expensive high school project is far from over.

At Thursday’s meeting, a parade of public officials, parents and community members urged the board to approve the project. Belmont parent Randy Waller focused his attention on board member David Tokofsky, the board’s self-appointed watchdog. Waller reminded Tokofsky that he’d just walked precincts for Tokofsky’s successful re-election campaign and that he’d never asked for anything. But he was pleading “for a quid pro quo now,” he said.

Tokofsky wasn’t even listening. He was talking on his cell phone, with his back turned. He hadn’t meant to be rude, but the image of his back turned on an ignored constituent didn’t look good to the partisan crowd. When Tokofsky later voted “no,” most of the Latino onlookers — the school would serve Latino-majority neighborhoods — booed or hissed. Tokofsky’s district, too, has a Latino voting majority. La Opinión, the city’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, had made its endorsement of Tokofsky contingent on his voting to complete the half-finished campus.

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But the election is over, and Tokofsky still has misgivings.

The latest plan’s new and distinctive feature would be a 10- to 12-acre natural park built and managed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy on land made otherwise useless by a small earthquake fault that runs through the 35-acre property. Two structures over the fault would be torn down, and two new buildings west of the fault would be erected. The cost would be well over $100 million, bringing the total expense of the project to around $300 million.

San Fernando Valley representative Julie Korenstein, a longtime Belmont opponent, focused on safety concerns — the school sits on an old oil field. “I know there has been a great need for a school in this area,” she said. “This is probably the most important vote this board will ever, ever, take.” Her vote was “no.”

Caprice Young, the other Valley rep, also voted “no.” Belmont has never been popular among Anglo Valley voters, who’ve been told for years by the Valley Daily News that Belmont is yet another rape of resources that properly belong in the Valley.

Now board member Jose Huizar, who represents the Belmont area, needed every other vote on the seven-member board. And board member Mike Lansing was not even present. Or was he?

Just as Tokofsky and Korenstein were gearing up to deliver their list of questions, a disembodied, amplified voice filled the packed chamber: “In a half-hour, I’m out of here,” it said.

The voice was unmistakably that of Lansing, who was present, via speakerphone, because he could not attend in person.

When Huizar called for the question — the parliamentary prelude to voting — he broke down and could barely get out the words. More distraught than angry, he accused critics of applying a double standard to Belmont. “This is the most studied property in all of Los Angeles, possibly the state,” he said. “Will the district listen to the community? That’s another question that’s on the table.”

Huizar turned away to compose himself. Board member Genethia Hayes, sitting to his right, put a comforting hand on his shoulder, a gesture that finally left no doubt about the outcome.

Hayes, an African-American, had just lost her re-election bid. Her African-American opponent had tarred her with the Belmont project, just as Hayes had used it against the prior incumbent. In South L.A., Belmont is code among some black voters who see the project as symbolic of how resources are flowing away from underserved black students to Latinos.

The refashioned Belmont project will come back to a new board of education at least two more times. Thus, last week’s vote gives Belmont supporters some breathing space — perhaps two years — to win over one of the two new board members, or perhaps holdover Tokofsky, to their cause. They will argue that campaign rhetoric is one thing, but that good public policy, even with a project as tortured as Belmont, is quite another.

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