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Bell Tolls for Belmont

Photo by Debra DiPaolo
Student leaders at old, overcrowded Belmont High have had a civics lesson in action this month, but it has hardly been an uplifting one. They learned that their sheer will to get the new Belmont Learning Complex finished just won’t do the job. It didn’t matter how many times their protests got on TV, or how loudly they shouted, or how brightly colored and clever were their signs. It was all so much verbal triage for a dying cause.

The point was driven home Tuesday, when the school board killed plans to complete the half-finished $200 million school by a 5-2 vote after nearly two hours of anguished and angry testimony, mostly from project supporters. So many students, staff and parents from old Belmont High showed up that many had to wait in the rain because the boardroom auditorium was filled to capacity. The fate of the half-finished school, built atop a shallow oil field, had been in limbo over safety concerns at the site.

In the end, though, it was not safety but the twin demons of politics and money that spelled doom for Belmont. Had Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller recommended finishing the project — and had the school board accepted that course — district officials would have found themselves politically isolated in their backing of a project that would always carry political risk. Support for the Belmont Learning Complex has simply evaporated for reasons as far-ranging as Sacramento beltway politics, the L.A. mayor’s race, contract negotiations with teachers, the Valley secession drive and a unionization campaign at a nearby hotel. And one consequence of this political reality is financial: The school district alone will bear all further costs attached to Belmont, and going forward on Belmont also would risk the loss of future state funds for other projects. To stand against this tide, Miller and the school board would have needed a dose of courage and commitment to this project that critics would have characterized as foolhardy.

On Tuesday, however, the most intense heat came from project supporters, and the inflamed passions singed interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who listened as speaker after speaker berated him, Miller and the board.

“We’re tired of hearing unmeaningful words and false promises,” said Belmont High senior Stacy Torres.

County Supervisor Gloria Molina mocked Miller’s assertion that “All difficult decisions are made in the absence of enough information.” “‘Facts will confuse you,’” Molina taunted. “Is that what you’re telling our students and the community? This community is entitled to the facts, Mr. Cortines.”

At this, Cortines could hold his silence no longer. “What you want me to do is keep the students and community waiting. There are no ‘facts.’”

“How are you going to make a decision, sir?” Molina shot back.

“Oh, we can make a decision,” responded Cortines. “We are not going to string this community along.”

But then, suddenly, Cortines lost his self-assurance. He was visibly stung when Belmont students reminded him that they’d been promised meetings with senior district staff over Belmont, meetings that had never occurred. And then board member Victoria Castro noted that the school board, on July 20, had ordered staff to prepare a feasibility study examining both the costs of finishing Belmont and the costs of alternatives, and that this study had never been done.

“What the board approved has never been shared with me,” stammered Cortines, who only recently took over as superintendent. He then requested a 60-day delay to complete the promised study.

Board president Genethia Hayes, however, would brook no delay. She recessed the meeting for 20 minutes, conferred privately, then reconvened to call for the series of deciding votes. Cortines’ suggestion was sent down 4-3. The Miller recommendation passed, including a directive for staff to return with alternative plans within 60 days, and also to explore selling the Belmont site.

The Belmont complex expired even as questions about its safety remain up in the air. The potential danger at Belmont comes from two sources chiefly, explosive methane gas and toxic hydrogen sulfide. Both emissions are released naturally and eternally by the shallow oil just below the site’s surface. And while technical solutions exist for handling the problem, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing environmental work at the site, hasn’t reached a verdict on the cost or effectiveness of a mitigation system. A commission set up to review the Belmont complex produced a worst-case-scenario cost of $60 million for an environmental fix. Most consultants and state officials estimate the cost of installing and operating a system for 50 years at $10 million to $20 million.

It’s a lot of money any way you slice it, and the result would be a safety system more extended and detailed than has ever been tried at a school, one that could never absolutely remove all risk.

Persisting safety concerns and the financial liability of pressing forward were too much to overcome, Miller wrote in his report. “Our students deserve the safest schools under current standards. The poor and minorities, as well as the wealthy and comfortable, are equally entitled to the safest schools Any other basis of decision amounts to environmental apartheid.” Adequate classroom space, he added, could be found more quickly and cheaply elsewhere.

Earlier this month, Miller had successfully urged the board to cancel a South Gate high school project precisely because of a multimillion-dollar site-cleanup cost. He could hardly be expected to pursue a different tack at Belmont.

On the other hand, the South Gate project, despite some $30 million spent on land acquisition, was in the early stages. The financial commitment at Belmont hovers around $170 million, and the final tab is expected to rise past $200 million whether the school is finished or not. Moreover, a Belmont safety system would derive from existing, straightforward and reasonably well-proven technology, and Belmont would be built to a higher safety standard than many of the district’s already-operating schools, including old Belmont High.

And a new school — even two or more new schools — is badly needed in the area. Nearly 5,000 students already are crammed onto old, undersize Belmont, making it the state’s largest high school. Board member Mike Lansing noted staff’s estimate that 2,000 additional high school students are bused out of the Belmont attendance area, while some 4,600 are bused out at all grade levels. Lansing joined Castro as the lone votes opposing Miller’s recommendation. “I cannot decide to blow up an option when I don’t have another bridge to go over,” Lansing said.

Although the school district’s independent Belmont Commission favored finishing the project by a 4-3 margin, it also raised so many contingent issues that the matter was hardly settled when Miller began his review. Miller’s original recommendation didn’t write off the Belmont complex completely. The project, he suggested, could at least help ease overcrowding by serving as office and warehouse space — and freeing other buildings for conversion to classrooms. Adults could use the Belmont space, Cortines explained at a news conference last week, because more is known about safe exposure levels for adults to toxins such as hydrogen sulfide.

While hydrogen sulfide is a real potential hazard at the site, the more immediate danger is methane. Here, the adults-vs.-children rationale completely falls apart, because methane is explosive rather than toxic. And adults blow up just as readily as children.

Project proponents quickly jumped on this point, and a school-board majority amended Miller’s report to drop all notions of using Belmont for any district purpose whatsoever.

Board members had any number of plausible reasons for voting up or down on Belmont. Still, it’s hard to believe that a potential political blowup wasn’t pressing hard on them. In last year’s campaigns, an anti-Belmont rallying cry helped throw three incumbents from office. It’s hard these days to find any elected officials to stand for Belmont.

Early on, city officials were supportive — and even discussed financial support of the project — but what can Mayor Richard Riordan offer now, given that his own political strategists used the Belmont issue in the successful campaign against the old school board?

The large field of contenders to succeed Riordan, which includes some movers and shakers, also has largely been silenced by political expediency. Take Steve Soboroff, for example, who holds an influential position not only as Riordan’s senior adviser, but as president of the Recreation and Parks Commission and as head of the oversight committee reviewing local school-bond spending. He once was downright giddy in his enthusiasm for Belmont. These days, his campaign staff try to give him credit for halting the use of school-bond money at Belmont. The exception here is Congressman Xavier Becerra, who on Tuesday urged a delay in the vote until alternative student-housing plans were costed out.

City Councilman Mike Hernandez, who, like Molina, represents the Belmont area, also spoke for the Belmont faction, but otherwise the City Council was a no-show. In other times, council support might have come from former school-board member Jackie Goldberg, for example. But thanks to term limits, Goldberg is on the way out of the council and engaged in a labor-backed campaign for the state Assembly. Local labor is opposed to Belmont, and even if it wasn’t, why would any current candidates for political office strap the Belmont albatross to their backs? The most recent avid Belmont supporter to run for political office was school-board member Victoria Castro, whose bid for the state Assembly was trounced, thanks in large measure to a labor coalition.

Labor’s hostility to the Belmont complex stretches back to the project’s inception. Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees joined the fray to oppose the selection of the Kajima Corp. as the lead developer, because Kajima holds a controlling interest at an anti-union downtown hotel. The union assigned topflight researcher David Koff to the anti-Kajima cause, which ultimately became, for him, an anti-Belmont-complex cause. Early on, Koff began arguing his case against the project on merit, not politics, and his research contributed mightily to early groundbreaking Belmont articles in the L.A. Weekly. In those days, it was Castro who held the political cards, while project opponents were pleading for delays and accusing district staffers of misconduct and improperly withholding information.

The union influence in local elections was as persuasive as the revelations that Koff unearthed. What chance, for example, does any mayoral campaign by state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa have without substantial union support?

The unions’ reach on Belmont via Villaraigosa and others stretches all the way to Sacramento. In the capital, though, other Belmont opponents also have played crucial roles, including state Senators Richard Polanco and Tom Hayden, and Assembly Member Scott Wildman. Polanco (D–Los Angeles) is the godfather of Latino political ascension in California, and his early opposition to Belmont — and his preference for a failed effort to build a high school at the Ambassador Hotel site instead — undermined any nascent movement among Latino politicos on behalf of the largely Latino clientele in the Belmont area. In the last few days, school-board member Castro has cobbled together a Latino coalition that included the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the Central American Resource Center (CARACEN), but big-name Latinos were conspicuous by their absence.

Hayden (D–Los Angeles) used the Belmont conflagration to push for tougher environmental protections for students. For his part, Assembly Member Wildman (D-Glendale) made a name for himself when he hired a team of researchers, most of them freelance reporters, to dig into financial and environmental misdeeds at Belmont. At Tuesday’s meeting he referred to the site as a “hazardous, toxic pit” and the project itself as a “criminal venture” and the “worst public-works scandal in the history of Los Angeles . . . designed to enrich developers at the expense of children.”

For Wildman, Tuesday’s decision was a bellwether on district efforts to reform school-construction procedures. To go forward with Belmont would be to flunk the test. And Wildman’s viewpoint matters because he holds a seat on the State Allocation Board, which controls all state dollars for school construction. Such political realities gave Miller pause to consider that a decision to finish Belmont could place at risk funding for other school projects.

Closer to home, the teachers union also has consistently fought against Belmont. At first, the union was merely acting in solidarity with the hotel workers. But now, it’s a pocketbook issue. With no state money or local bond funds forthcoming, future Belmont expenditures would come out of the general fund, dollars that would otherwise be available for teacher salaries — let alone books and pencils.

Nor could a pro-Belmont board member find any safe harbor in the media. The Daily News initially supported the project, but reversed field after the district sought bond money to pay for Belmont. Over time, the paper used Belmont as a cudgel to beat up the school district and reinforce the paper’s editorial policy that favors breaking up L.A. Unified as well as the city of Los Angeles itself. The paper even assigned a talented investigative reporter, Greg Gittrich, to cover Belmont virtually full time.

Over at the L.A. Times, editors initially paid little attention to Belmont. That changed in part when the paper decided to back Mayor Riordan’s “reform” slate for the school board. Leading up to the election, the Times assigned one of its own top investigative reporters, Ralph Frammolino, to cover the district, a mission which evolved into dirt-digging on Belmont. A key front-page story, by Frammolino and Doug Smith, focused on the district’s failure to pursue thorough environmental testing at the site. It prompted an uproar.

So who is left to argue for Belmont? Well, there’s school-board member Victoria Castro, who used to call at will on a pro-Belmont school board to push through any Belmont-related item. Those colleagues have left the board, or been retired by voters. Then there’s . . . then there’s . . . oh, yes, the student leaders at old Belmont High.

It got so bad that, last April, during a one-on-one meeting between Castro and Kajima executive Marvin Suomi in the bar of the Wyndham Checkers Hotel, Suomi proposed flying in former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to endorse the Belmont complex because it would include a health-careers “academy.” That should silence the tree-hugging critics, went the argument. Since then, even Kajima seems to have given up, focusing its efforts more on getting paid than on restarting the project.

“You’re betting on the seniors to graduate,” senior-class president Ana Fernandez, 17, told the school board through tears. “But we will not forget.”

“We are the future voters and taxpayers,” warned 15-year-old sophomore Sarah Rodriguez.

But that’s the future.

In the meantime, a half-finished campus, the most expensive high school project ever, sits mothballed in white plastic, in limbo on the edge of downtown, a monument to the spurned aspirations of 5,000 Belmont High students who, from the beginning, have been pawns of pro- and anti-Belmont forces more powerful than they.