Reform in Reverse

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Following a year of environmental scandals that stalled construction projects and cost the L.A. Unified School District millions of dollars, a specially appointed team of environmental consultants accused district bureaucrats of failing to follow their superintendent’s own safety directives, the Weekly has learned. The consultants nearly resigned over the matter.

"District staff is responding far too slowly" in ensuring that sites for new schools are free from toxic contamination, the consultants wrote in a confidential April 30 memo to senior management. "Resistance from middle managers" and "lack of leadership," is "threatening unified policy reforms from taking hold."

Although the discord has been patched over for now, the memo presents a starkly different picture than press releases trumpeting a no-holds-barred commitment to safe school sites at the Los Angeles Unified School District. Behind the scenes, district officials and consultants have disagreed on how to handle potentially contaminated school sites, such as the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex.

The disputes have simmered over the past year, as the school system was beset by environmental scandals at Belmont and the recently completed Jefferson Middle School as well as by turmoil within the district’s Environmental Health and Safety Office, which has run through four directors over the last year. This spring, L.A. schools Superintendent Ruben Zacarias tried to put the matter to rest by pledging that all prospective school sites be certified as safe by the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. The issue is timely for L.A. Unified, which hopes to build more than 90 schools in the next few years, but has access to few parcels that are both "clean" and available.

The March commitment to state oversight was the product of intense negotiations strong-armed by state Senator Tom Hayden (D–Los Angeles), a staunch environmentalist and also a longtime school-district critic. But the school district had already started to tackle the issue months before, when it appointed a "school-safety team" of hand-picked consultants, first to deal with the problems at Jefferson Middle School, then to oversee the handling of other toxic hot spots. By April, however, less than two months after Zacarias’ pronouncement, these same consultants were beginning to have doubts.

In the memo, they asserted that school district "middle managers" were resisting the reforms promised by Zacarias. And senior officials were exacerbating the situation because they couldn’t agree on environmental policy; some were comfortable with strict environmental controls, while others were looking for wiggle room. Although the memo names none of the entrenched district bureaucrats who have ignored the reform drive over the past six months, the buck clearly stops at the desk of Chief Administrative Officer David Koch, to whom the memo was addressed. "We believe the most serious deficiency is the lack of firm direction to both the Safety Team and mid-level management . . . There is no clear path of accountability." (In an interview, Koch characterized disagreements over environmental matters as a "healthy exchange of ideas.") The memo was sent by consultants Angelo Bellomo, a former state toxics official; Barry Groveman, a private attorney who once prosecuted environmental crimes for the District Attorney’s Office; and Tom Soto, a Santa Monica– based public-relations and environmental-policy specialist.

Although the notion of insuring safe schools is the ultimate no-brainer, the safety team was implanted within a bureaucracy that is often hostile to outsiders, one that operates under directives that "compete" with environmental activism, such as the need to hold down costs or to build schools quickly to spare children from long bus rides outside their neighborhoods. In recent years, old-guard district bureaucrats have downplayed safety concerns at the Belmont site, an old oil field, and at Jefferson, a former industrial parcel that is next to a property so hazardous that it’s a state-designated "Superfund" site because of the toxic waste there. To them, safety-team members were environmental opportunists scoring consulting fees by seizing upon exaggerated fears fanned by politicians seeking press.

Predictably, and almost instinctively, the school system developed an alternative to the no-compromise — but costly and time-consuming — practices pushed for by the safety team. It came in the form of newly hired staff attorney Bradley Hogin and outside lawyers from McClintock, Weston, Benshoof, Rochefort, Rubalcava & MacCuish. Hogin has lawyered for both government agencies and business clients, while the McClintock firm has primarily represented private industry, including oil companies. Attorneys for McClintock declined to be interviewed.

The McClintock firm was originally brought in to oppose inflated contractor claims at Belmont but suddenly began analyzing environmental legislation and, according to sources, briefing district witnesses before they testified at a March legislative hearing into the Belmont environmental morass. They reportedly told district staffers to hold their heads high, because they had done nothing wrong.

The new attorneys apparently took their philosophic direction from senior district officials, including school-board President Victoria Castro, who has denied that L.A. Unified was remiss on environmental affairs at Belmont.

Members of the school-safety team declined to be interviewed for this article, but documents and district sources indicate that they were troubled by these developments. Indeed, newly emboldened bureaucrats and contractors questioned anew the necessity of safety-team recommendations. These included installing a costly vapor barrier with an active venting system at Belmont — designed to dissipate pockets of explosive methane gas.

In the April 30 memo, the safety-team consultants hinted at their imminent exit from the school district over such issues. And on May 6 officials responded with a tacit acceptance of the consultants’ departure: "Your memorandum recommends that the Safety Team gradually transition to a unit comprised of District staff," notes the reply from Chief Administrative Officer Koch and General Counsel Richard K. Mason. "In general, we concur with your recommendations."

The district response memo made it clear that attorney Hogin, the new staff hire, would now lead a re-configured safety team, from which the independent consultants would be phased out.

But even as these memos changed hands, events were unfolding that would alter the equation. Hogin, newly in charge, was crafting a series of amendments to Senate Bill 162, a school-district-sponsored measure that would establish regulations on how to handle contaminated school sites.

But when Senator Hayden saw the amendments, he went ballistic, immediately firing off a five-page letter to Superintendent Zacarias. "I am sorry to say that recent developments concerning Belmont and other contaminated school sites indicate the District is retreating from reforms necessary to ensure that children are safe at school," he wrote, terming the situation "grave."

Specifically, Hayden accused the district of watering down the proposed legislation by excluding petroleum byproducts from being classified as toxic. The effect would be that fewer schools would fall under rules requiring full testing for contamination.

L.A. school officials deny weakening the bill, but they had difficulty getting their story straight about these amendments as this article went to press, and finally they deferred comment pending an internal investigation.

For his part, Hogin said in an interview that he drafted the amendments in response to general comments from lawmakers and legislative analysts. His goal, he said, was to exclude clean sites from a burdensome review, while also assuring state oversight of contaminated parcels. Hogin denied that oil waste would escape scrutiny, but conceded that "unintended" loopholes crept in elsewhere.

One would give school districts wide latitude for avoiding state oversight. As written, finding a toxin would not automatically trigger state intervention. If a school district, for example, finds benzene (a carcinogen) on a parcel, that alone would not be enough. First, the school district gets to guess whether the original release of benzene exceeded established safety limits. A school district wanting to avoid oversight could guess itself right out of state jurisdiction, according to critics.

Hayden will focus directly on these amendments and who authorized them at a hearing of the state Senate’s Natural Resources Committee, which Hayden chairs, in Los Angeles on May 21.

For the moment, district bureaucrats are on the defensive because of Hayden’s intervention, and that of outspoken school-board member David Tokofksy, who has proposed having the safety team report directly to the school board. The stock of the original safety team has risen accordingly. In fact, they are, once again, on the team.

And for the moment, Hayden’s staff has muscled Hogin out of the next round of amendments. Hayden said he expects the final version to require the cleanup — followed by a state safety certification — of any contaminated property intended for a school. He added that the school district’s "status quo" bureaucrats tried to limit the involvement of outside agencies and oversight "because they see that as an obstacle to building more schools — because it will increase costs for what they consider to be paranoid and unnecessary remediation."

Attorney Hogin insisted the district and Hayden are on the same side: "We want this law to be as comprehensive as possible. The district will not tolerate risk to the kids."

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