Belmont Bucks

The state’s most powerful legislator has cast his lot and the state’s cash with supporters of the abandoned Belmont Learning Complex project. State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa disclosed, in a Sunday interview with the Weekly, that he will ask the Legislature to pay for completion of a safety analysis of the site. Villaraigosa said he wants to settle "once and for all" whether the half-finished school, which sits above a shallow oil field, can be made safe at reasonable cost. About $170 million has already been sunk into the project.

"The school board made its decision to stop the project before all the environmental studies were complete," said Villaraigosa. "The school district should complete the study so that we have the evidence on which to make an informed decision as to the completion of Belmont."

Although Villaraigosa had expressed such sentiments previously, he’s now gone further – essentially offering the L.A. Unified School District a chance to finish the scientific analysis free of charge: "I want to remove any impediment that we have to fully reviewing this matter so that we can put this issue to rest. I will be making the proposal this week."

Villaraigosa, who represents the Los Angeles area, is a leading candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, and it’s not clear how his decision will play out politically. A new school board majority was elected last year on a platform that was anti-Belmont. But the importance of Belmont in voters’ minds apparently declines as political distance from the school district increases. City Council member Jackie Goldberg won the Democratic primary for a state Assembly seat last month despite her opponent’s attempt to exploit her early part in Belmont as a past member of the school board. And Assemblyman Scott Wildman, who played a prominent role in first investigating and then opposing the Belmont complex, lost his bid for the state Senate against fellow Democratic Assemblyman Jack Scott.

The learning complex’s oil field site is plagued by pockets of methane gas, which is explosive, and scattered hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic. Finishing a study on the extent of the hazard – and how best to mitigate it – would take about four months and could cost close to $1 million, according to officials with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). And while that’s a lot of money, said Villaraigosa, "You gotta finish the study so we can decide what to do with Belmont in the future. How do walk away from a $170 million investment without doing that? It’s irresponsible in my mind."

The state appropriation would be available in the fiscal year starting July 1. But the school district doesn’t have to wait that long, said Villaraigosa, who is confident that his proposal will be approved. The district could resume the study immediately, then file for reimbursement later.

While Villaraigosa’s gambit will be cause for celebration among Belmont supporters, some school-district officials are not likely to share the elation. Just two months ago, five of the seven board members thought they knew enough already about Belmont to cancel the project without further study. Recently hired Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller recommended abandoning the project because of lingering safety concerns – and because he saw no prospect of further state funding for the project.

"The school board and Howard Miller are engaged in the first serious strategic planning to deal with classroom overcrowding and the educational needs of the Belmont attendance area as a whole," said David Koff, a union researcher who has long campaigned against the Belmont project. "Now they’re encircled by political camps that continue to rain mortars on their heads. That is not productive and that doesn’t help the kids." He added that the DTSC estimate of a four-month time frame for the study "is as problematic as every other projection of what it would take to get Belmont finished. It’s no more grounded in fact than anything else in the history of Belmont."

The late January school board vote was supposed to be the final nail in the coffin for the Belmont complex. And for a majority of school board members, the casket was still tightly sealed and six feet under as of late last week. Of the five Belmont opponents, two school board members, Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky, have consistently opposed the project from the beginning. Two others, new members Caprice Young and Genethia Hayes, made voter disgust over Belmont a centerpiece of their recent campaign victories. The fifth "no" vote was Valerie Fields, who has made it clear that she would fear for her life if she ever had to step foot in the Belmont complex.

On the face of it, that anti-Belmont voting bloc looks unassailable. But it is surely being tested, and not just by Villaraigosa, but also by a coalition of community members and politicians. This coalition is aided substantially by the powerful law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, which used to represent the school district on Belmont-related matters. L.A. Unified is now suing O’Melveny for malpractice, and a pro-Belmont campaign is a central part of the firm’s attempts to limit potential liability.

On March 3, the Los Angeles City Council voted to hold up city approval for school projects unless Belmont was reconsidered. This action had little teeth, however, because the school district needs no city permits for nearly all of its projects.

Then last week, a similar resolution came before the outside committee that oversees the spending of local school bonds. Although the bond oversight committee has no actual authority over the school system, school board members are loathe to oppose it – having an oversight committee was a key component of the 1997 campaign to pass local school bonds.

After a combative discussion with district officials, committee members on Thursday tabled their punitive resolution, while also offering a carrot. They pledged to consider sanctioning the use of bond funds to pay for completion of the Belmont safety study. In doing so, the committee undermined the prior reasoning of COO Howard Miller, who had concluded that the committee would never provide bond funds for Belmont. Miller has repeatedly stated that he can’t support going forward with Belmont if the project has to be paid for with general operating funds – the money that would otherwise pay for teachers, books and other education costs.

At the Thursday meeting, Miller was taken aback by the aggressive posturing of oversight committee members. "At the moment I’m feeling like General Custer, and I don’t want to stay on the hill," he commented. He added that the he had no unilateral authority to undue the school board’s vote.

Rising from the audience, county Supervisor Gloria Molina then did the oversight committee one better. She promised to use $1 million of her supervisorial district’s discretionary funds – either in the form of a loan or outright grant – to fund the study.

Oversight committee chair Steve Soboroff immediately seized on the offer, challenging school board member Caprice Young, who also was in attendance, to accept the deal on the spot.

"I’m never one to turn down a million bucks," said Young, haltingly. Still, Young, who had voted to cancel Belmont, was clearly reluctant to revisit the issue. What about underfunded child-care services and other county needs, she responded.

"It’s not your money, it’s my money," shot back Molina.

"It’s taxpayers money," countered Young, adding that it’s time to move beyond Belmont.

Interviewed after the meeting, Molina said that she would not simply hand $1 million to L.A. Unified. But if district officials made a formal request, she is prepared to sponsor an emergency resolution to make the money quickly available.

"I want to take away the issue of money as a reason for not doing the study," Molina told the Weekly.

For Steve Soboroff, the chair of the bond-oversight committee, the Thursday meeting was a tide-turning event. "I can’t fathom that the new school board – the reform board – a proactive board – will not allow this study to be done, especially in light of the fact that it doesn’t cost them anything and it might save them $100 million to use on other schools." (Soboroff, like Villaraigosa, is a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles.)

Soboroff’s logic did not win immediate acclaim from board member Julie Korenstein, who also attended Thursday’s meeting.

"I don’t know why people don’t seem to know what the information is on Belmont," said Korenstein, referring to environmental reports and testimony going back more than 10 years. "Obviously the DTSC report is going to come back asking for mitigation. The big issue for me is the cost of mitigation. What if it were $25 million to mitigate? Do we put $25 million back into that project? I want a 100 percent guarantee that our students and faculty will not have any health problems. I don’t think anyone will guarantee that. I don’t think anybody can." She added: "I understand how desperately people in that neighborhood want a school. But a school should not have been built on that site -- period."

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