Photo by Michael Powers

L.A. school officials have retreated from a bold school-conversion plan that was supposed to relieve a student-overcrowding crisis. Under the plan, the district would have converted middle schools to high schools, and elementary schools to middle schools. In four months, however, not one school has been firmly identified for conversion, as administrators have encountered either unremitting community hostility or disabling logistical problems.

“We cannot convert all of the middle schools to high schools, and all of the elementary to middle schools,” said interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines in an interview. “We cannot afford to.” And it’s not just money. Cortines also believes academic programs could suffer from students being assigned to unsuitable campuses: “I think I know about school buildings. There is no way.”

The remarks of Cortines, who took charge of the school system on January 18, underscore the magnitude of the overcrowding and its resistance to any quick fix. Cortines’ comments to the Weekly also are the first public acknowledgment from a top district official that a widespread school-conversion strategy, introduced with a flourish in November, simply isn’t going to work.

The pressure to find class seats increased further in January when the school board — acting on the recommendation of Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller — abandoned the half-finished, scandal-plagued Belmont Learning Complex, which sits on an old oil field. Miller concluded that he could produce the same 3,500 seats faster and cheaper at a site not plagued by oil-field con- tamination. At first, Cortines strongly supported the Miller recommendation. He later asked for further study instead, but was overridden by a board majority.

Now Miller and Cortines have to deliver. One potential escape hatch for Belmont-area students is the site of the shuttered Ambassador Hotel, where a deal for a school is in the works. But that project presents obstacles of its own, mainly from preservationists who want to save the historic property and City Councilman Nate Holden who doesn’t.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system with 711,000 students, needs well over 100 new campuses, an enormous undertaking by any standard, especially for a school system that hasn’t built a single comprehensive high school in nearly 30 years. Miller has inherited a discredited school-facilities division, one decimated by retirements, suspensions, transfers and demotions in the wake of critical internal audits last year.

Miller’s magic bullet — the conversion plan — was based on the reality that large parcels of unpolluted land are hard to find in urban Los Angeles, while smaller schools for younger children are simpler and cheaper to construct. So in November, Miller proposed building 150 new primary centers to serve children in their own neighborhoods through the second or third grades. Existing elementary schools, meanwhile, would take in grades three or four through eight, while current middle schools would become small high schools. While conceptually compelling, his plan looks increasingly less practicable.

Superintendent Cortines, to whom Miller reports, said it simply makes no sense to mix and match students and buildings as though they were all interchangeable variables. While South Gate Middle School would work well as a high school, he said, the displaced middle school students would not fare as well: “There is not an elementary school that can [house] that kind of industrial-arts program.” In addition, South Gate Middle School “has some of the best physical-education facilities. It has an outstanding library. There is no elementary library as large as that library.” Elementary school classrooms, he added, are not the right size for older students, and elementary campuses don’t have science labs. “For us to say, we will provide you equity someplace else — we can’t do it.”

Nor did Miller’s plan receive rousing support in South Gate. An estimated 1,200 residents gave Miller an earful at a January 25 community meeting at South Gate Park.

“The parents were furious. They absolutely hated the new plan,” said Lorena Padilla-Melendez, field deputy for Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, whose staff organized the gathering. Parents did not like the grouping of fourth graders with eighth graders, even though some schools have been successful with those age spans.

South Gate residents were bound to be distrustful, given that the school board — again at Miller’s urging — had just killed a long-awaited elementary school and high school project in that city because the construction site was polluted. The elementary school has been needed since the desertion of Tweedy Elementary School in 1987 due to its own toxic contamination problem. For 13 years, the Tweedy staff has operated out of temporary bungalows in a city park. In response to the community outrage, Miller and his staff have pledged to reconsider all options in South Gate.


Though residents were less hostile, the conversion idea also got flak at a community meeting hosted by Reed Middle School in North Hollywood. And in the east San Fernando Valley, the proposed conversion of Sun Valley Middle School has been shelved because the campus is adjacent to a landfill. New regulations on school construction near landfills would raise steep regulatory hurdles, according to district staff.

Though the conversion plan has stalled, the primary-center initiative got a boost last week from allies of Mayor Richard Riordan. Attorney O’Malley Miller, a partner in Munger, Tolles & Olson, proposed enlisting private developers, using pre-approved specifications, to build the primary centers. The developers would manage the entire project, including financing, then hand over the school, and their bill, to L.A. Unified.

Miller’s idea evolved from more than two years as chairman of the mayor’s Primary Center Task Force. This advisory group was established to help the district build 10 primary centers a year. “We gave it our best shot, and got four of them open in two and a half years,” said Miller. “But when that’s the best you can do, you have to try a better approach.” He added, “How many schools did the school district on its own start and open in that time? None, zero.”

The last straw, he said, was the misplacement of two additional primary centers. One of them occupies part of a public alley; another intrudes on private property. The school district’s full-time surveying staff, he added, is neither qualified nor properly certified.

“Through sheer bureaucratic ineptitude on a breathtaking scale, the school district has been unable to build enough schools so that children can be educated within a reasonable distance from their homes,” said Miller, who is not related to district COO Howard Miller.

At the moment, however, the O’Malley Miller plan is little more than a brainstorm. Noted Miller: “A reporter asked me if I could send him an outline of the proposal on paper. I told him, ‘It doesn’t exist.’”

In fact, much of the district’s facilities strategy is downright ephemeral. “It does seem a bit uncertain,” said one senior staffer, who requested anonymity. “We don’t know what it’s going to be like next week. I don’t think Howard Miller has any trouble making decisions. But the staff is having difficulty trying to obtain the information he wants and keep up with their other tasks. Mostly it’s a manpower issue.”

The last several months have seen the departures of the most senior district administrators with a say in facilities matters, but to some observers, Miller himself is part of the problem. “One of the historic sins of the school district has been a culture of withholding information with the idea that either people don’t need to know or that someone knows better,” said architect Michael Lehrer, vice chair of the local school-bond oversight committee. “In a public mission of this scale, transparency is of itself a huge achievement.”

Like other Miller initiatives, the conversion plan was presented “like a done deal,” said Lehrer. “The problem is that it’s completely dependent on our faith in the ability of one person, or a group of people, to propose a project of staggering complexity. Howard Miller is holding his cards so close to his chest, and I don’t understand why.”

Miller was not available for an interview, but has publicly outlined his general plans, and attended community meetings, as in South Gate. Miller does understand the importance of community buy-in, said East L.A. Community College President Ernest H. Moreno, who is teaming with L.A. Unified to build class space on his campus. It was at Miller’s behest that Moreno decided to consult again with faculty members over the joint venture.

School board member Caprice Young defended Miller’s ideas as holding great promise. “We’re still trying to get things done with a broken system,” said Young. “We have to fix the system and get things built at the same time.”

Inevitably, time is lost as Miller struggles to assemble a staff. The void is being filled in part by consultants and by business figures with ties to the mayor. The staff report on alternatives to Belmont is being assembled by Edwin Van Ginkel, of the Arthur Anderson consulting firm. Veteran developer and Riordan ally Stuart Ketchum has been sitting in on negotiations to acquire the Ambassador Hotel site. And O’Malley Miller has assembled a working group to pilot the private-development scenario. His team includes Anita Landecker, a business associate of Riordan friend Bill Siart, who has started a firm to develop public charter schools.

“Every time I meet a new consultant, I have some reservations as to why that person is here,” commented one staffer. “Are they necessary? What’s the real motive? Is their loyalty to the district or to their pocketbook?”


Some of the ideas — such as letting a developer finance a school — hearken back to strategies tried unsuccessfully at Belmont. “There was nothing wrong with the concept at Belmont,” said veteran developer Ketchum, “except that it was badly negotiated, managed and administered.”

O’Malley Miller will not hear of comparisons to Belmont, the $200 million school that sits half-finished atop an old oil field on the edge of downtown. “That project was totally wacko,” he said. “I’m suggesting something simple and straightforward.”

Canceling the Belmont project was a blow to students and parents who’ve watched the school rise for more than two years — and who were promised a new school as far back as the 1980s. Determined to offer a quick alternative, district officials have refocused on the Ambassador Hotel site, which has a longer history as a proposed school than even Belmont.

In the 1980s, the school district battled over the site with New York developer Donald Trump, who talked of erecting the world’s tallest building on the Wilshire Boulevard frontage. The school system had its own grand designs, plotting to use the 23.7 acres for both a high school and a shopping center, which would include its own high-rise. L.A. Unified used condemnation powers to claim the rear 17 acres just before the real estate market crashed, a critical misfortune in timing. In the ensuing litigation, Trump and fellow investors conceded that the school district had the right to take the property, but also contended that L.A. Unified was legally obligated to pay the market price at the time condemnation proceedings began. To avoid this financial obligation, the school district eventually abandoned the condemnation. Instead, district officials got state approval to transfer state money intended for the Ambassador’s purchase to the Belmont site. The district, however, continued to have a stake in the property, because its owners have never returned the school district’s $48 million deposit.

Of course, the Ambassador would still make an ideal school site. More than 2,000 high school students live within six blocks. According to district sources, the deal now under negotiation would include developers led by Magic Johnson’s business team, which would raise $20 million to $30 million to buy the front part. A high school would occupy the rear section, while Seventh Street would be extended through what is now the main hotel structure. The leftovers of the Trump team — Trump sold out in 1998 — would exit through foreclosure proceedings or become a party to the new development agreement.

But if L.A. Unified wants to build fast, it also may have to deal with preservationists from the Los Angeles Conservancy. In addition to being the site of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Ambassador played the role of both grand hotel and Hollywood nightspot, catalyzing the development of Wilshire Boulevard. Litigation from the Conservancy could delay demolition for a year or two. Instead, the conservancy is offering a fast-track compromise that would preserve the main hotel building, while also allowing some commercial development in front and a small high school in back. The old hotel could be re-used, for example, as the school-district headquarters, freeing the district’s downtown headquarters for conversion to a school, said Ken Bernstein, the Conservancy’s director of preservation issues. School-board member David Tokofsky, who chairs the district’s facilities committee, said the suggestion merits consideration.

District sources, however, report resistance from City Councilman Nate Holden to any high school. Holden could hold up commercial development, as well as any change to the city street grid. He did not return calls, but reportedly regards high school students as detrimental to business development on Wilshire.

“There is no clean, easy answer to any of these things, and there are an awful of moving parts right now,” said Ketchum. “The school district needs about 20 Howard Millers.”

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