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Abandon Belmont

The Belmont Learning Complex should not be completed. The Los Angeles Unified School District simply cannot be trusted to manage a school site with such serious, ongoing safety issues. In saying this, I mean no ill toward the many fine teachers, clerical workers and principals of this city. I am referring instead to the school system’s senior leadership, past and present, which has never taken environmental hazards seriously.

Actually, that’s an understatement. The hard truth is even worse: District officials would rather endanger children than deal with safety concerns openly and effectively. And that’s not just my conclusion. This was among the findings of the Rohman Report, which the school district itself commissioned in 1999: "This investigation found a widespread (although not universal) perception among [Environmental Health and Safety] staff that district managers discouraged the clear reporting of environmental safety hazards, pressuring them instead to ‘spin’ or under-report these hazards in an effort to avoid offending other entities in the district."

The report quotes, among others, an environmental-health specialist who told investigators that staff was not encouraged to raise safety issues. "There is an unwritten policy in the district, you do not close a school for any environmental problem," he said. "It looks bad if you close a school and find nothing. It looks bad if you do find something. You never make students go home."

It’s not hard to find examples of students being placed in harm’s way. In 1968, for example, long before Belmont, the school district opened Park Avenue Elementary School atop a landfill that had been used for decades as an unregulated, petroleum-filled dump, one that sometimes caught fire when neighborhood children set it aflame for fun. For about 20 years, district officials dismissed the fears of parents worried about a caustic, tarry goo that would form on the play yard’s blacktop on hot days.

By contacting the state Health Department, the city of Cudahy finally forced the school district to take action. Testing revealed the gunk contained carcinogens, such as benzene, and high levels of lead, which can cause brain damage, as well as highly acidic aromatic hydrocarbons, which one consultant likened to battery acid. But in 1989, district officials at first confidently insisted that children faced no immediate risk, citing a consultant who opined that the tarry brew was dangerous only if eaten, or if rubbed on one's body, or if set afire and its vapors inhaled. But when the Environmental Protection Agency arrived to perform tests, its technicians wore white protective suits.

The school was finally shut down until a temporary barrier could be placed above the black top to keep hazardous landfill waste from leaking through. The school district promised to fix the problem permanently, but hasn’t to this day.

Also in the late 1980s, the district got into trouble for failing to fully research environmental risks at school sites it was looking to acquire. The district ended up having to sell a just-purchased property that was next to a steel-treating plant. The school superintendent of that time responded by adopting a stronger safety policy, which did nothing to head off the Belmont disaster.

The man who helped design the temporary fix at Park Avenue was consultant Angelo Bellomo. L.A. Unified called him into service again in 1998, when activists revealed that brand-new Jefferson Middle School was built over a site polluted by previous industrial activity. The smooth and eloquent Bellomo was perfect for that job, which involved reassuring parents that children were not in danger — a contention that critics still take issue with.

Now Bellomo is the Environmental Health and Safety director for the entire school system, and thus at the center of determining Belmont’s future. He’s not the right fit here, at least not if safety is the prime directive. There are just too many ethical and professional question marks, especially involving conflicts of interest.

For one thing, Bellomo continued to work for a private firm, Environmental Strategies Corporation (ESC), long after he became a member of the school district’s executive-level "Safety Team," which had oversight of ESC’s environmental work for the school district. Over a year’s time, ESC’s contract grew from $350,000 to $6,024,540. The original contract itself was negotiated outside the legally required competitive-bidding process, on the grounds that an "emergency" existed. The expanded agreement may be in violation of the California Public Contracting Code, which specifies that increases to contracts (called "change orders") can’t exceed 25 percent of the original amount.

Then there was Bellomo’s role in last year’s failed campaign for district attorney by Barry Groveman, a consulting environmental attorney for L.A. Unified. According to sworn testimony in Belmont-related litigation, Bellomo’s secretary called an active district environmental contractor both just before and just after a key district job interview in which Bellomo participated. Both times, she left voice mails requesting contributions to Groveman's campaign.

Neither safety director Bellomo nor L.A. Unified has done anything to justify a position of trust when it comes to environmental issues. It’s a shame that the children of Belmont must be victims of this shortcoming, but completing the Belmont Learning Complex would do students further disservice by placing them within the reach of harm. There have been enough errors at Belmont already. Now it’s time to err on the side of safety and abandon the project once and for all.

Dennis Dockstater is a former L.A. Unified teacher now working as a freelance researcher and investigator. He is an occasional contributor to L.A. Weekly.

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