Photo by Debra DiPaolo

It was a changed school board last week that took up the $200 million–plus Belmont Learning Complex, a half-completed proj-ect that is now in limbo over possible toxic hazards at the site. For once, there were no rhetorical flourishes, no playing to crowds of bused-in Belmont supporters. A subdued Vickie Castro had shelved her speech about how you’re either for Belmont or against kids; she had little to say period. So it fell to fellow board member Jeff Horton — her stalwart ally on Belmont — to perform historical contortions in proffering a most unlikely motion: a call for internal and external investigations.

The proposal, which passed without opposition, was crafted, said Horton, “to get to the bottom of what actually happened around Belmont.” Of course, Horton should know most of the details already. Other than Castro, in whose board district Belmont sits, Horton has been the project’s most vigorous advocate. In 1993, he even agreed to sacrifice state funding for a proposed high school in his own board district — at the site of the shuttered Ambassador Hotel — to pursue what seemed a cheaper and faster deal downtown at Belmont.

“This is a wonderful project,” Horton asserted in a September 1995 interview, “and to insist that the school help leverage some housing and retail for a neighborhood that desperately needs both is a good thing. It’s a progressive thing that the district is doing.”

His allegiance to the concept hardened Horton against any intimations that there was something seriously wrong with the project — that ambitious district officials and their high-priced consultants would be able to deliver little more than an extremely expensive high school, the state’s costliest ever. Early on, Horton concluded that all serious opposition was politically or financially motivated. But Horton and the controlling school-board majority never questioned the motivations — or the facts, or the advice — of project proponents. The drive to build Belmont, after many years lost in legal tangles and planning, apparently blinded him to rising costs, staff misrepresentations and repeated conflicts of interest.

Now, however, Horton faces a tough campaign for re-election. It’s not hard to figure that his challenger will make Belmont an issue, given that Horton embraced the project from the start as a form of neighborhood redevelopment.

And despite unwavering support from the board, Belmont is a wounded project. Although some construction continues, the schedule — as well as the budget — took a hammer blow after disclosures about seeping methane gas, widespread contaminated soil and spot concentrations of carcinogens at the site.

Meanwhile, outside the school district, the county Board of Supervisors last week also acted on Belmont, unanimously referring, without comment, a review of the project to the county Grand Jury, which has the authority to return criminal indictments. Never before has an official body opened the door to criminal charges over Belmont. The school district has pledged full cooperation.

Since the environmental revelations became front-page news last month, the finger-pointing has been endless, with school-board members virtually trumpeting their lack of any knowledge that could have prevented this.

“There have been a lot of allegations,” said Horton at last week’s board meeting. “None of them has proven a case. And I want us to get past the innuendo and the accusations to an unbiased source that will give us what really happened.”

Even so, Horton went only partway in his bid for the mantle of watchdog. His proposed investigation focused on the environmental problems, but its scope was immediately widened through amendments offered by Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky, the school board’s most persistent Belmont critics. They wanted a review of the bidding process, as well as of conflicts of interest among district consultants and the selected development team.

Such matters had never visibly troubled Horton before, but he was hardly in a position to protest. He no longer has the votes. And, he submits, he too wants to know what went wrong. For her part, board president Castro even allowed that she was shocked.

How was it that the school board was kept so long in the dark? Well, it turns out they were informed — just not by sources they trusted. A reasonably accurate analysis of the situation, along with a grab-bag of wide-ranging accusations, was provided by researcher David Koff, who has dug up dirt on Belmont as part of a unionization drive against the Kajima corporation, the company building Belmont. Similar information was provided separately by hired guns working for a consortium led by high-flying New York developer Donald Trump. Trump’s group owned the Ambassador Hotel site on Wilshire Boulevard and wanted to pressure the school district to build there instead.

Three of the seven school-board members were concerned enough to oppose the project.

Even in light of recent events, Castro and Horton, who chastised critics as “school killers,” are not exactly sending around peace pipes. “Most of the people slinging the accusations have nothing to say about how we can get a school built,” Horton stated at last week’s board meeting. “And that’s still our job as the school board — to get a school built.”

Of course, it’s a little late for Horton and colleagues to be playing watchdog at Belmont. A better opportunity arose in September 1995, when school-board dissident Tokofsky, who also is up for re-election, proposed an oversight committee. Castro opposed the idea when it came to a vote because, she said, she hadnseen the motion in advance and she distrusted Tokofsky’s motives. Board member Barbara Boudreaux, who also is standing for re-election, opposed the oversight committee based on her analysis of Tokofsky’s manners: “I think you got to learn the rules of courtesy with this board,” she told him.

It was Jeff Horton who provided the swing vote that Tokofsky needed, although the board majority allowed staff to tightly control the committee of outside experts. Its members were not permitted to report directly to the public, or freely to the school board. Nor could they revisit earlier staff decisions on the project.

At one board meeting during the negotiations with Kajima, Tokofsky wanted to know, “Was any member of the oversight committee enthusiastic [about the project]?” Horton, the board president at the time, jumped in quickly to cut off a staffer before he could speak. The answer to that question was “clearly” a matter for closed session, Horton said.

Now, the entire deal is matter for the recently hired Dan Mullinax, who heads the newly configured Internal Audit and Special Investigations Unit. His work will not be filtered through administrators. Said Horton, “It is independent — in every way — of district staff, so I want that person [Mullinax] to go right to work on it.”

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