If media and baseball mogul Rupert Murdoch really wants to help local kids, the school district has just the thing:
Donate a couple of distant, underused Dodger Stadium parking lots for a high school. It would cost him less out-of-pocket cash than your average disgruntled left fielder. Folks might even name the school after Murdoch.
Heck, forget the donation and let the school district pay for the lots and perhaps even a parking garage as a tradeoff. Murdoch, however, had something else in mind. On January 11, 2000, he donated $50,000 to the Coalition for Kids.
The Coalition for Kids is the campaign committee established by Mayor Richard Riordan to throw out school-board members he doesn’t like — board members whom he considers too thick, too distracted or too compromised to do what‘s best for the children of L.A.
This role of political terminator comes after two earlier Riordan incarnations: first as school philanthropist, through the Riordan Foundation; then as the friendly pied piper of school improvement, through the corporate-backed LEARN reforms. It was Riordan’s impatience with the pace of progress that led to the Coalition for Kids. He‘s out to terminate the political careers of two board members in the April city elections, after having helped retire three other incumbents in 1999, which was the coalition’s first election test.
Critics acknowledge that Riordan cares for the children of Los Angeles Unified, but what are the myriad motivations of his financial foot soldiers — including Murdoch, the Playa Capital Corp. and Riordan buddy Bert Boeckmann — all of them contributors to the coalition? Are there issues that could have motivated them to donate beyond a commendable striving for the public good?
In a word: yes.
For some contributors, such as Ed Roski Jr.‘s Majestic Realty — one of the city’s major developers — the amounts donated to the Coalition for Kids pale in comparison to what‘s been at stake in city business before the mayor. Majestic, which donated $15,000 to the coalition in 1999, had the mayor’s support for city subsidies to help pay for Staples Center (co-owned by Roski). Roski also has the backing of the Mayor‘s Office for further development — and further subsidies — in the blocks surrounding Staples, a development zone that could surpass $1 billion in value. Majestic also had the mayor’s help in obtaining $12 million in federal assistance for an $80 million warehouse complex that would fill a tract near Chinatown and the L.A. River. Community activists want to reserve that land for open space, affordable housing and, yes, possibly a school.
“I‘ve always thought that Riordan did all of this with the best of motives,” noted one attorney, who requested anonymity because of his work for the school district. As for the donors, “In an environment where everyone knows the school district is land-hungry, where everybody is aware of the district’s aggressiveness in seeking land, I could see how developers and other contributors to the coalition might want to protect themselves.”
In a handful of cases, the financial interests of coalition supporters conflict directly with those of a school district seeking school sites. Boeckmann, for example, snapped up a property the school district was openly pursuing. And Playa Capital — the builder of Playa Vista — would rather market housing and retail footage than set aside more prime land for classroom space.
Mayor Riordan, brandishing his mantle as the “Education Mayor,” has insisted that school sites take priority over economic development, a sort of Riordan Doctrine. Thus, those who want properties for other purposes must yield to public necessity. But the reality is more intermittent than the rhetoric.
Because Riordan is leaving office, some recent contributions may have more to do with mayoral services rendered than hoped for. Still, for a fervent capitalist, the advantages — civic and otherwise — of donating to the Coalition for Kids can be numerous. For one, you can donate at once to every school-board candidate whom the mayor is supporting. And you never need mull over which candidate is actually most fit for the job. The mayor takes care of that for you. And unlike contests for the mayor and City Council, there are no donation limits in school-board races. Giving to the coalition has been mayoral lobbying in another form. And if you really want to impress Mayor Riordan with the extent of your commitment to school reform, nothing will restrain you except your bank balance and your generosity.
It showed in the 1999 school-board races, the most expensive school-board campaigns in the nation‘s history. And this year’s contests are headed in the same direction. Here‘s a more detailed look at the extended interests of some players who’ve helped make them that way.
With a reported net worth approaching $17 billion, Rupert Murdoch is an obvious stop on the donation trail of any civic cause, including the Disney concert hall and the downtown cathedral, both currently under construction. Murdoch frequently gives generously, and the ties binding him and Riordan are long-standing and complex. But there was no hint of nuance in the Dodgers‘ reaction when L.A. Unified sought a portion of the Dodgers’ parking acreage for a future high school.
The parking-lot high school became a central priority after school-board members canceled the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex project. It was a top choice of school-district Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller because the site was clean, essentially vacant and in a prime school-attendance area. Yet because of Dodgers opposition, virtually no progress had been made by the time Miller left district employ in July 2000.
One objection, said Dodgers spokesman Derrick Hall, was the site‘s proximity to the main stadium entrance. “We, along with the neighbors, explained to the school district how that would not work for obvious reasons,” said Hall. “There are safety factors involved for the kids, not to mention it would bring problems to the fans.”
From the school district’s perspective, Mayor Riordan declined to step up to the plate. “There have been cases where the mayor has helped,” said one upper-level district administrator. “He busted his butt helping us get a school site near the MTA station in North Hollywood. But I don‘t have a clue what his position is on the Dodger Stadium project,” said the frustrated official, who requested anonymity for fear of offending the mayor. “I don’t see where he‘s weighed in one way or another. He’s not necessarily giving us help where it‘s needed, but where he wants to.”
From Murdoch’s perspective, neutrality is value received.
Which is not to say that L.A. Unified has given up; it‘s still talking with the Dodgers, but no longer about a high school. Negotiations now revolve around converting overflow lots — beyond the main entrance and parking area — into athletic facilities that would serve nearby schools. L.A. Unified has made a substantial concession, one that won’t make classroom space.
When Los Angeles voters approved Proposition BB — the local school-bond measure — officials began scanning the city for school sites. By the fall of 1998, they had zeroed in on the old Van Nuys drive-in at the corner of Roscoe Boulevard and Noble Avenue, projecting a badly needed middle school for that 13-acre parcel.
But a national used-car chain called CarMax had gotten there first, fair and square, and it was loath to surrender its investment. The district battled with CarMax for the better part of a year just for access to the site. Finally, after the school district went to court over the lockout, CarMax entered serious negotiations over the parcel‘s future. One option under discussion was splitting the site.
In May 2000, however, CarMax unexpectedly sold the site to Herbert Boeckmann II, the owner of Galpin Ford. The broker on the deal, as detailed in these pages last week, was mayoral candidate Steve Soboroff.
Mayor Riordan — the Sir Galahad of Schools — could have been all over this deal. Soboroff was, after all, the mayor’s senior adviser as well as his representative to the Proposition BB committee, which oversees bond spending for new schools. Riordan, however, has all sorts of reasons not to lean on Boeckmann. For one, Boeckmann‘s Galpin Motors, with its 800 employees, is one of the city’s major generators of sales-tax revenue. Boeckmann also serves as a loyal Riordan appointee to the city‘s Police Commission.
In addition, Boeckmann, a Republican who favors Valley secession, is a regular contributor to Riordan-backed political causes, including Soboroff for Mayor and the Coalition for Kids, to which he gave $10,000 on March 31, 1999. An attorney whose firm represented CarMax also contributed $750 to the coalition.
When questioned about whether Boeckmann and Soboroff had done the school district a disservice, Mayor Riordan insisted in an interview last month that “You’ve got it all wrong.” It wasn‘t Soboroff’s fault that the district lost the site to Boeckmann. The problem, he said, was that the school district never contacted the property owner. Riordan said he tried to intervene on behalf of the school district, personally calling the owner: “When I called, the property owner said he‘d never been contacted by the school district, and that he was sorry, but that he’d just sold the property.” During the interview, the mayor did not have the benefit of reviewing the documentary record, which contains substantial evidence of interaction between L.A. Unified and the property owners.
Boeckmann, by the way, wants the land for storing and prepping used cars. The mayor‘s goal is to find him an alternative place to do that, Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo told the Weekly. Oddly enough, Weekly fact checkers who routinely double-checked Delgadillo’s account with the mayor‘s press office got a different message: that the mayor was not involved at the drive-in site. The Weekly went back to Delgadillo, a candidate for city attorney, who has made helping schools a central theme of his run for office. His campaign aide retreated from Delgadillo’s earlier assurance, saying that the matter was still being worked out.
Attempts to contact Boeckmann through his representative were not successful.
Playa Capital is the concern building Playa Vista, the multibillion-dollar development that environmentalists love to hate, because it would pave over most of the last undeveloped expanse of coastal-adjacent land, more than 1,000 acres, on the city‘s Westside.
Playa Capital also has issues on the table with the school district, namely, the matter of 2,300 to 5,000 school-age children who would live in a built-out Playa Vista (which anticipates up to 25,000 residents).
Playa Capital has offered a single four-acre site for an elementary school, a deal the school district approved in 1995. That agreement was negotiated by special-projects director Dominic Shambra, who later became widely known as the maestro of the suspended Belmont Learning Complex project.
In 1995, the school district had not yet passed a bond issue, no state construction funds were forthcoming, and, in those days, the city, in its bid to spur commercial development, was more competitor than friend when it came to snaring school sites. So to Shambra, a gift of four acres — when the possible alternative was nothing — looked appealing. Contacted this week, Shambra — who is now retired — said he also had an informal understanding that negotiations could be reopened if more school space was needed, though L.A. Unified might have to purchase the additional land.
That’s not the understanding of Playa Capital management, which has changed since 1995. To Playa Capital, the deal begins and ends with the one site. In which case the developers may be getting off easy — especially since Playa Capital could seek to be compensated for the value of the surrendered land.
From the mayor‘s perspective, however, Playa Capital, which donated $1,500 to the Coalition for Kids in 2000 and $5,000 in 1999, is a model corporate citizen. Playa Capital even merited a seat on last month’s “Education Express,” the media bus tour that Riordan used to tout his mayoral legacy. The developer was especially prominent that day because Riordan sees corporate participation as vital in school reform, and he was delighted to provide free commercials in exchange.
And why not? In the last three years, the Playa Vista Educational Trust has donated a total of $108,000 to 12 L.A. Unified schools it has “adopted,” awarded 432 high-achieving students with a $2,000 savings bond and distributed $72,000 in grants to teachers for school projects. Playa Capital is a “wonderful company,” Riordan told the busload of reporters.
Support from the mayor has been crucial to Playa Vista. The city has approved $135 million in taxpayer-guaranteed bonds as well as other entitlements, not to mention allowing Phase 1 of the project to go forward. The second phase is still under environmental review, for which Playa Capital needs continued political good will. Not content to rely on good will alone, Playa Capital regularly ranks among the most prolific city local lobbyists according to the city Ethics Commission. It also has contributed to the campaign and office-holder accounts of various local politicians.
Besides Playa Capital itself, a roster of Playa Vista‘s affiliated developers and investors have donated to the coalition, including Gary Winnick of Global Crossing and Pacific Capital ($50,000); other Global Crossing executives ($26,000); Howard Marks of Oak Tree Capital ($20,000); and Robert Maguire of Maguire Partners ($10,000).
This confluence of money, of course, doesn’t negate all charitable motives. Winnick and his wife, for example, spread their philanthropy widely. Last year, they donated $1 million for a project that pairs aspiring teachers with second-graders in need of tutoring. And Karen Winnick, who writes children‘s books, gave $30,000 toward establishing a library at an Eastside school for troubled teenage girls.
In the developer-friendly 1950s, builders who created communities such as Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks left — or had to leave — space for schools. The schools they left behind were generally six- and seven-acre sites, which almost assuredly accounted for all the neighborhood students. In 1968 — the most recent update — the city reaffirmed this principle, stating in planning documents, that communities with 15,000 to 30,000 residents should have their own high school. And each section of 5,000 to 10,000 residents should have its own neighborhood elementary school. The plan acknowledged that this goal would be hard to achieve in areas already built out.
Playa Vista is the city’s only development site that‘s analogous to the tracts of the 1950s, in which subdivisions filled expanses of farmland or open space. Everywhere else the district needs to put schools is built out, contaminated or otherwise problematic. If Playa Vista can’t be done right — with new schools built right into the neighborhood where they‘d be needed — where indeed can the school district hope to meet its challenge?
But land at Playa is a valuable commodity: After all, an assortment of million-dollar homes would fit into an area the size of a school playground.
The alternative to providing schools within the development would be assigning students to nearby schools, which are currently less crowded than in other parts of the school system, but well beyond reasonable walking distance. The geographic hurdles also include major highways, bluffs and a marina. In addition, to create the required classroom space at these existing schools, L.A. Unified would have to add portable buildings. That’s precisely the solution envisioned in Playa Vista‘s Environment Impact Report. Problem is, the school district is trying to undo the results of this coping strategy in other parts of town, where students are bused in. At downtown and Eastside campuses, the district has slapped down portable classrooms on what used to be playground space andor switched to year-round schedules that shorten each instructional year by about a month. No campus in the Playa Vista environs runs year-round yet, but most have numerous portable classrooms already.
Playa Capital’s managers and marketing projections don‘t forsee a doomsday scenario here. Their planning presumes that young families with children won’t flock to the Playa Vista “campus.” Instead, they envision families with older children or grown children or no children, or children too rich to settle for public schools. Or they expect home buyers to be adult singles, or unmarried couples in their pre-child-bearing years, or gay couples who don‘t want to raise children. In short, anyone other than families with school-age children. Playa Capital might be right about that. At any rate, the developers are willing to roll the dice on that bet; it’s in their financial interest to do so.
Recently, another problem has further clouded the picture. District administrators are now quietly expressing concerns that the four acres offered by Playa Capital have toxic contamination that would make the property unfit for a school.
School-board member David Tokofsky is not so quiet on the subject: “This is another Belmont-era problem, an environmentally challenged school space, a so-called great deal and, in the end, no instructional vision, along with the packing of too many kids in one location for them to achieve academically. But maybe the ocean air will help.”
Asking the Mayor‘s Office about schools in Playa Vista elicits the rhetorical equivalent of a blank stare; Riordan has never been asked to choose between the school district and Playa Vista. Only now are district officials beginning to revisit the agreement they signed in 1995. Playa Capital, of course, would like the matter settled once and for all, before it hinders construction. But the company has not issued an ultimatum.
“Right now, what’s happening is that Playa Vista and the school board are trying to figure out how best to fulfill Playa Vista‘s obligations,” said Playa Capital spokesman Coby King. “We’re pretty confident that the agreement struck in 1995 continues to be entirely appropriate. And when all is said and done, Playa Vista will have met and exceeded its requirements under state law.”
In the meantime, Mayor Riordan can count on the city‘s moneyed interests to continue to deliver for the Coalition for Kids. After all, he’s certainly delivered for them.
Dave Perera contributed to this article.