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School on Ice

Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

Every day, 500 students at Queen Anne Place Elementary in the Crenshaw District arrive at a clean, new campus, complete with freshly applied stucco and block-glass windows in the entryway — a testament to the school district’s multibillion-dollar construction program.

Problem is, students don’t go to this school, which is fenced off and empty. For the past four and a half years, they’ve attended crowded classes on the other side of the lot, where 14 unconnected, squat portable buildings are packed tightly onto half an acre. They can’t go to the new school because a dispute with contractors has left the nearly complete campus unfinished and in limbo. Until this week, there was no immediate resolution in sight, but on Tuesday the school board, faced with repeated inquiries from the Weekly, declared the situation an emergency and authorized staff to do whatever it takes to complete the new school.

That’s long-awaited good news at the temporary campus, where Queen Anne students are often crammed 40 and more to a classroom. Some of the temporary buildings lack air conditioning; some are rodent-infested. Because of the construction, the makeshift school has no playground, forcing students to cross the street to an adjacent park.

These conditions, which students have endured since early 1995, seemed tolerable so long as work on the new school was under way next door. But the school’s completion is now more than a year overdue, and since January, virtually all work has halted. The new school — more than 90 percent complete — stands like a mocking mirage.

"Our parents are mad at the teachers and me," said school principal Mary Ann Hall. "They’re very concerned, and they don’t understand why it’s not completed."

Indeed, for most students at Queen Anne, their entire elementary school experience has been shaped by the substandard, "temporary" campus. "The kids who have been here since kindergarten," noted one teacher, "they don’t know any better at first. But the kids we get from other schools, the first thing they notice is how bad the situation is. The new kids let the other kids know what they’ve been missing."

The Queen Anne project imbroglio underscores chronic problems in the L.A. school district’s management of construction projects — the scenario here is eerily similar to that of Jefferson Elementary, a South-Central school that has remained half-finished for three years after a dispute prompted the builder to walk off that job. Nearby Jefferson Middle School stood empty of students for a year while officials re-examined toxic contamination at the site — a problem that critics say remains unresolved. And the state’s most expensive high school ever, the downtown Belmont Learning Complex, has been mired in conflict-of-interest questions and cost overruns for several years, becoming a major issue in the recent school-board elections.

District officials avoid discussing such embarrassments, pointing instead to more than 2,500 projects completed since voters passed a $2.4 billion school bond in April 1997, including 112 paint jobs, 101 air-conditioning installations and the completion of two primary centers. Still, the ghost campuses remain empty.

"You’ve got to keep your eye on the ball, and the ball is to open the school," comment-ed Steve Soboroff, who chairs the community advisory committee for local school-bond projects. "All the bureaucratic posturing has to take a back seat to completion."

Until this week, even posturing would have been an uptick in response from the district. School-board member Barbara Boudreaux, whose district includes Queen Anne, brushed off a question about the campus at an April 9 school-board candidates forum, and instead focused her ire on a member of the audience who demanded to know why neighborhood children had to attend school in "pigsties."

Parents were to blame, insisted Boudreaux. "If your school is a pigsty, you should have been there from the beginning . . . As a parent, I would not allow my school to become a pigsty."

On Tuesday, however, following inquiries from the Weekly, the bureaucracy began to move; in a unanimous vote, the school board authorized staff to complete the proj- ect without further delay, even foregoing competitive bidding to find a new contractor. Officials now say they hope to finish the project within six months.

"Today’s action will allow us to move quickly," said school-district spokesman Erik Nasarenko. "The district has treated this with a great deal of urgency and timeliness."

This sense of crisis was notably absent for more than a year, as district bureaucrats passively watched the project run off the rails. In a series of letters and claims to the school district, the contractor, Orange County– based Lewis Jorge Construction Management, alleges that the school district provided defective plans and specifications, and then unnecessarily and even illegally withheld payments, forcing the company to walk off the job for lack of funds.

 

In a claim letter dated February 9, the contractor also accused the school district of putting political concerns over the needs of students. As evidence, the contractor cited its request to replace Magna Enterprises, a plastering subcontractor, for allegedly deficient work. The alleged response from an unnamed district manager was "No, this is a very sensitive political issue . . . The owner . . . is a very influential member of the black community and has connections higher up in LAUSD. We don’t want him to think we are discriminating based on race."

District chief construction inspector Tom Leslie said he has no knowledge about that comment, but added: "I’m not going to deny the fact that it was a sensitive issue. It was a minority contractor." Although the district agreed with Lewis Jorge, the school system hired a third party, the Southern California Plastering Institute, to confirm that Magna’s work was inadequate, and the firm was finally replaced after what Lewis Jorge contends was a needlessly protracted process that dragged on for five months and resulted in added costs of at least $400,000.

Magna owner Craig Mobley declined to comment on the matter, but his firm has defended the quality of its plastering work, and in May 1998, filed a claim asking the district to set aside $261,973 for money owed to it. In early December, a Superior Court judge reduced the amount set aside to $43,688, but the dispute apparently had a domino effect, resulting in a mini-avalanche of claims from worried subcontractors. In all, these claims and earlier claims totaled more than $1.2 million.

The school district, in accordance with its policy, set aside the claimed amount of money for each case. Consequently, after Magna filed, funds released to Lewis Jorge nearly dried up. Lewis Jorge contends that, as a result, it had insufficient money either to pay its own workers or its subcontractors. A district manager countered that it is Lewis Jorge’s responsibility to settle disputes with subcontractors.

Lewis Jorge proposed heading off the cash-flow predicament by arranging interim financing through the school district, but the district denied the request. Finally, on January 4, Lewis Jorge walked off the job, accusing the district of breach of contract. Four days later the district released partial funding, but Lewis Jorge elected not to cash the checks, to protect its breach-of-contract claim.

By that time, Lewis Jorge had come to question the entire school-construction apparatus. "I find it amazing that out of the hundreds of employees at the LAUSD, no one has the ability or authority to resolve major problems on a school-construction proj-ect being paid for by taxpayer dollars," Robert M. Lewis, president of the building firm, wrote in a January 11 letter to the district. "As you are well aware, time is of the essence on this project." He added, "If you determine . . . the identities of the people at LAUSD [who] can meet and help to resolve this situation, please notify me immediately."

District officials respond to these allegations by pinning blame on Lewis Jorge.

"If Lewis Jorge would have continued, we would have opened the school," said the district’s Tom Leslie.

 

Parents and staff at Queen Anne were resigned to a period of inconvenience when students moved from their old school to an adjacent, makeshift campus. But even the old school — which was torn down to make way for the new construction — was better than what passes for a campus now. The old campus, at least, had a playground, more classrooms, permanent buildings, a principal’s office and a teachers’ lounge.

The tight conditions make it hard for Queen Anne students to reap the benefits of the district’s class-size reduction program, which allots one teacher for every 20 students at four grade levels. At Queen Anne, teachers often have to share class space, packing 40 or more children into a room. "It is very difficult to get a lesson across," said teacher Isura Torres. "It gets too noisy."

Recently, the school’s library was shut down to house a new class of disabled students. The books were moved to a leaky storage room, where students don’t have ready access to them and where many have suffered water damage because of a leaky roof. "Now, many of our books have mildew and are pretty much destroyed," said a teacher, who requested anonymity.

Lunchtime is another rainy-day problem. A small covered pavilion has 23 benches, much too small to serve the school’s 500 students, obliging them to eat at their desks or on classroom floors, a situation that has exacerbated the school’s rodent infestation.

The most recent estimate was that students would be in the new building before the end of 1998. December came and went. Then followed the early-January spectacle of the contractor packing up.

 

Amid the discomfort and inconvenience, the sight of the $10.14 million new school next door — virtually unchanged in four months except for the weeds that have sprouted around it — is as much aggravation as balm. Said principal Hall, "We got so close we could taste it."


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