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Rough Justice

Now the Los Angeles School District officially wants to abandon the Belmont Learning Complex as a school site. This may not be a good idea, but who could blame the LAUSD superintendent and COO for their finding? Whether Belmont is irremediably dangerous due to its oil-field history is something that may never be proved. But the 35-acre center is certainly, fatally tainted by decades of administrative malfeasance: willful, inadvertent and every gradation between.

Belmont symbolizes everything that has gone wrong with educational bureaucracy in general and the LAUSD in particular for the past generation. It is to the ideal of public education what Chernobyl was to nuclear power. It may yet eventuate the breakup of the Los Angeles district itself -- something no less of an authority than City Councilman and proud Lincoln Explorer driver Nate Holden predicted on the Los Angeles City Council floor last Friday.

Considering the tentative tenure of interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines and ad hoc Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller, you couldn‘t quite call their proclamation a mandate. But a majority of the school-board members went along and called it a day on the idea of putting kids into the befuddled, bewitched ”learning complex.“ All the details of the Cortines-Miller Belmont Bailout plan, however, did not go down with the members. A sticking point was a space swap that would lodge the board and the LAUSD bureaucracy in the controversial, half-built Temple-Beaudry complex, long intended as the direly needed new upper school for the overcrowded center city. The kids -- or some of them -- would sit in the old district offices. The school rejected the idea of housing any employees at Belmont.

In the coverage of the Cortines-Miller proclamation, I saw no new alternatives to Belmont itself -- just the familiar, flawed proposals to site classrooms in district headquarters, vacant office buildings, even the abandoned Terminal Annex Post Office! There is a discreditable presumption here that classrooms are no more specialized, architecturally speaking, than closet space. And that ”a school“ can in fact be scattered over a square mile or more of urban real estate.

More entertaining was Miller’s claim (in his presentation before the City Council Friday, of which more below) that he can pull another high school or three out of a hat by creating new lower schools that would include grades seven and eight. Miller stated that since small schools can be built in less than three years, and since extant middle schools can simultaneously be converted for older students, hey presto: instant high school, on the cheap. (Interestingly, the Times reported Miller‘s basic reasons for abandoning the new Belmont complex to be economic rather than ecological.)

Now Miller’s schoolhouse-shuffle plan may be the cleverest-ever LAUSD idea that was not actually criminal. But it certainly remains to be proved that Miller can have a specific new downtown high school up and running in less time than the two to five years it would take to mitigate the Belmont site. For starters, where does one find the new land for those essential lower schools?

And even if you can build an elementary school in three years, it doesn‘t mean you can realign grade levels at so many existing schools in the same length of time, as Miller implied you could. Board member Victoria Castro, quoted in the Daily News, put it best: ”This community [is] fed up with ideas. They want specific answers.“

But I think Miller is dead right about one thing: The board and district offices should have moved into the Belmont complex. The board members would benefit from the constant reminder of what their predecessors accomplished. And the LAUSD bean counters -- so many of whom connived toward or acquiesced to Belmont’s $200 million breach of public trust -- deserve nothing better.

Taste -- nay, inhale daily -- the rotted fruits of forfended justice, bloated board bureaucracy. You‘ve made your bed. Now lie in it. And work in it. And if you get a bit woozy now and then, or have an occasional coughing fit, just remember: This was the place where you guys were going to put tens of thousands of children for four years at a stretch. None of whom could go outside and take a deep breath, as you could, whenever you felt like it.

Where’s Ramon?

Where indeed was LAUSD temp Superintendent Ramon Cortines Friday morning? Council Member Mike Hernandez kept asking, but if he got a direct answer, I must have missed it.

Well, one place where he was not was in the Los Angeles City Council Chamber, where his colleague-in-arms Howard Miller took it upon himself to say, ”The invitation came to me; I‘m here to speak for us both.“ Exactly whom school-board member Valerie Fields, who accompanied him, was speaking for he didn’t say.

The invitation from the City Council -- to drop by and chew the fat a bit about just how this whole school thing was going -- had, in reality, been sent last year to then--LAUSD Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. It would not have been completely unreasonable, therefore, had Zacarias‘ direct successor -- namely, Ramon Cortines -- shown up alone to face the lawmakers.

But for Cortines to have done so probably would have given the council aggregate a misleading notion of where the current top LAUSD power really lies. Which seems to be in Miller.

The absence of anyone Hispanic in the tiny LAUSD delegation did little to please council members, who have not all come to terms with Zacarias’ abrupt ouster. ”Your [new school] plan will not work in my district,“ Hernandez said -- and his district contains Belmont. Padilla warned, ”Too often in my district, the LAUSD has plans to build in advance of community outreach.“

And Pacheco openly warned the LAUSD to keep its hands off the old Crown Coach plant property -- once planned for a controversial prison, and now, after an extensive cleanup, the most attractive industrial site in the 14th District.

The three African-American members also seemed irritated -- Nate Holden, in particular, warned that he didn‘t want to see the LAUSD planning schools at the expense of local housing.

Nine of the 15 members were more forbearing. But Miller, who was generally diplomatic and considerate in both his presentation and his responses, has to deal with the fact that the city’s black and Hispanic factions remain seriously unsold on his promised miracles. It‘s also interesting that, while the mayor has recently refocused from school reform to city matters such as the replacement of laggard managers, the City Council is -- at long last -- becoming more interested in what the LAUSD is up to.

A Peep Into the 21st Century

It’s getting easier to imagine what the new charter-mandated city neighborhood councils might be like when they start working in a few months. Indeed, their politics may resemble those of the recently elected Project Area Committee (PAC) for the Pacoima community-redevelopment project.

That area is in the 7th District, which is represented by freshman Councilman Alex Padilla. Padilla thinks his district badly needs the kind of CRA help that other Valley areas have disdained or objected to. So he‘s trying to make it happen in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. And one of the ways he tried to make it happen was by busing in supporters to vote for the committee of local people who keep an eye on how the CRA does. His slate won.

Project Area Committees are funny things: Their members can be either residents or people who work in the area. They can be pro- or anti-project. Padilla’s bus effort netted him 11 pro-development seats out of 18 on the board. One candidate, Glen Hoybie, an out-of-the-area attorney who chairs another PAC in North Hollywood, was not allowed to sit on the Pacoima PAC.

Despite this, the City Council certified the PAC election. ”As all of us in politics know, you have to get the vote out,“ said Councilman Hal Bernson. Indeed yes. And the pro-CRA PAC could indeed help Pacoima.

Yet, you can‘t but wonder if individual council members might not similarly tinker with the operations of neighborhood councils when they come along. And what if they do?

belong on the Belmont site


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