Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Right about now, construction of the Belmont Learning Complex was supposed to be winding down. But instead of approving the finishing touches on a glittering, first-of-its-kind campus, the school board Tuesday ordered a near shutdown of the lagging, half-finished project over environmental concerns at the contaminated site, moving closer to the very real possibility that what is already the nation’s costliest high school may never open at all.

The board action relegated Belmont to a costly state of suspended animation. During about three months of downtime, officials will assemble a panel of experts to sort out whether the project, which sits on what remains of a shallow oil field, can or should be completed. The panel — portrayed as similar in function to the Christopher Commission (which recommended police reforms in the wake of the Rodney King beating) — would be selected by August 15 and would then have 60 days to make findings and recommendations.

Meanwhile, the board authorized spending $2.2 million to “secure the site” while the commission toils. The board also voted to appoint a Belmont project director, who in turn will spend as much as $100,000 on a study to determine what to do with the downtown property if the school must be abandoned.

“In taking these actions,” said newly elected school-board President Genethia Hudley Hayes, reading a statement, “we have been guided by the following principles: fiscal responsibility; making an informed decision based on objective fact; recognizing the need for schools in the community; and, above all, ensuring the safety of children and adults.”

The decision to appoint a commission was the most widely supported move of the day, although the mere consideration of action on Belmont provoked a cacophony of opposing viewpoints.

Former district administrator Dominic Shambra, who directed the Belmont project until his retirement in January 1998, showed up to argue that the environmental crisis was entirely manufactured. “You are now surrounded by environmental hysteria created unfortunately by the district’s own consultants,” he told the board in the public hearing. He said he remained confident that “You will do the right thing and build this school.”

Shambra was cheered by more than 50 Belmont-area parents and students bused in at district expense and organized by board member Victoria Castro, Belmont’s most ardent supporter. Shambra’s view was then echoed by engineer John Sepich, who designed a basic vapor barrier — since rejected as inadequate — for Belmont after methane gas was discovered at the site. “The design of the site is safe from methane — safe,” insisted Sepich. Outside the boardroom, he added, “It’s worked every place we’ve used it. This is a slam dunk. It’s the easiest case I’ve ever seen.”

Expressing a contrary view was USC medical-school professor Kaye Kilburn, who focused on the hazards of hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas detected at the site. Kilburn volunteered that he’d written 225 papers on brain damage, “which I am convinced will occur if this site is occupied.”

Within the district, too, the debate has been intense. Shambra’s view is obviously shared by some officials, but at odds with outside consultants on a specially appointed school-district safety team. While the safety-team experts haven’t given up on Belmont, they’ve warned that the site can never be made clean, because the shallow oil field will continue to generate explosive methane as well as toxic oil byproducts in perpetuity. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has reached similar conclusions and last week called for more testing. The combined costs for the tests, the consultants and the safety system could surpass $20 million.

Money aside, school-district Superintendent Ruben Zacarias has pledged that the school will never open unless the DTSC certifies it as safe.

Though little noted, Tuesday’s decision to appoint a project director for Belmont contained a remarkable admission: that no one at the district has been in charge of Belmont since Shambra retired. The project was originally structured in such a way that its builder, the Kajima Corp., would call the shots while delivering the school for a fixed price. That notion collapsed over the environmental crisis, for which Kajima refused to accept any responsibility.

The $2.2 million plan to secure the site, if it went into effect next week, would work out to more than $60,000 per business day during the slowdown period. Officials say the goal is to protect the district’s investment by making the site weatherproof with the addition of doors, windows and roofs. At least one district insider acknowledged that temporarily covering exposed areas with materials like tarp would be a less expensive solution, and wonders whether the more costly approach approved by the board is a way to continue building under the guise of site security.

“You can weatherproof by tarping the roof or by putting in a very costly permanent roof,” the source noted. “Everything is in the definition. An obvious question is: What do we get for the $2.2 million? Are we living in Southern California or Buffalo” with its more extreme weather?

At the meeting, board member Mike Lansing remarked that a suspension of all work would be more costly — $3.7 million — than the $2.2 million for “securing the site,” but there was no documentation or further explanation for either figure. Behind the scenes, board members were warned against a unilateral suspension of work for fear of subjecting the district to legal claims from the contractor.

In the end, the school board didn’t seem to have much of a choice; if there were options other than the staff recommendations, they were never presented to the public. And even this course of action is not entirely settled. An amendment proposed by board member David Tokofsky contained the revelation that, to date, there is no hard-and-fast $2.2 million contract with the developer over a work stoppage.

But Tokofsky was less voluble than usual; in fact, Tokofsky, who loves to talk to reporters, was apparently the main target of Hayes’ last official comment during the meeting. “Board members and staff will not comment on this project while the commission is at work,” Hayes said.

It’s common knowledge among district insiders that Tokofsky in recent years occasionally provided “confidential” documents to journalists investigating Belmont. Tokofsky had concluded that the particular documents were illegally classified as confidential, in many instances to hide district mistakes. And, in fact, district lawyers had difficulty justifying the secrecy in public once the information came to light. But in private, some top administrators have tried to marginalize Tokofsky, on the grounds that “improper” public disclosure interfered with the work of the district. In recent months, staff stopped preparing written reports for the board’s closed sessions — for fear that Tokofsky would hand them to the press. And when a leak does occur, Tokofsky is the presumed culprit, even when he has nothing to do with it.

Still, many observers were struck with the incongruity of Hayes’ seeming attempt to muzzle Tokofsky. She and others on the newly seated “reform board” portrayed themselves as supporting change and made no secret of their disgust at the handling of Belmont by the previous board. In fact, much of the reason Belmont’s problems came to light was that reporters were able to dig into the issue and ferret out answers — despite close-lipped board members and district officials — thanks to the availability of district records and certain other often-dissenting employees and officials. Now Hayes’ order of silence would seem to offer a free pass to any staffer wishing to avoid public scrutiny.

Of course, not all district officials want to hide. “If you put the wraps on, you don’t get the truth out,” said one insider who asked to remain anonymous. “We can’t keep this message accurate if we don’t communicate.”

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