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Fiasco This!

Two years ago, the Belmont Learning Complex was 40 percent complete and on its way to becoming an innovative and forward-looking new high school. Now the project has become known as a scandal and a fiasco. It is neither.

A small core of antagonists, opportunists and corrupt politicians has successfully exploited a weak and powerless bunch of politicians and bureaucrats through intimidation and an effective propaganda campaign. That’s what created the "scandal." It was a case of deceit and fraud under the guise of reform, environmental safety, and free speech that unjustly derailed the project.

The truth of the matter is that those who wanted to stop the project, thrusting the Los Angeles Unified School District and the project into an untenable situation, purposefully manufactured this environmental scandal. All the claims about environmental violations are phony, but they were exploited by the media and they took their toll on the project and the school district. And now the new leadership of the school district is in the difficult position of validating false claims of wrongdoing.

The school district and just about everyone touched by Belmont are in a lose-lose situation. The unions that opposed the project didn’t gain anything. Barry Groveman and Scott Wildman, two politicians who staked their political success on creating the scandal, lost their bids to be elected to office. But their setbacks are not my concern.

There are any number of undeserving victims, including current and former district employees whose reputations were smeared as well as staff members who were unjustly suspended because of fraudulent claims. (They had to be reinstated a year later because the suspensions were not justified.) Parents and community members have been screwed royally by their own leaders. Saddest of all, students are still waiting for a school. They have been hurt the most.

Belmont would not have been a warehouse of a school. The educational aspect was innovative and thoughtfully planned. The school was organized into four distinct "houses," each serving 750 students. Each house offered two academic/career path academies.

If not for the amoral and potentially criminal actions of politicians, the persistence of a union researcher in search of a success, the misuse and exertion of power by some state and local political leaders, and a misinformation campaign embraced by the press, the Belmont Learning Complex would be open today serving more than 5,000 students.

Unfortunately, this scandal will live on forever. Even if the school is finished and the students and community are finally provided their school, the project will always be followed by that dark cloud known as the Belmont Fiasco or the Belmont Scandal.

Now some 27 years after the identification of the need for a new high school in downtown Los Angeles and seven years from the creation of the Belmont Learning Complex project, it may still be possible that the project will actually be finished. Under the leadership of Superintendent Roy Romer, there is still a strong chance that community members will actually realize their dream and get their much-needed educational facility. It’s about time these inner-city kids stopped choking on carbon monoxide belching from their school buses on a daily basis as they travel across town in search of learning.

Dominic Shambra assembled and managed the team of district staff and consultants who put together the Belmont Learning Complex project. At the time of his retirement in 1998, his directed the Office of Planning and Development for L.A. Unified, and was in charge of Belmont and several other school-construction efforts.

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