BELMONT PRICE TAG GOES $40 MILLION HIGHER LOWEST BID TO FINISH PRICIEST SCHOOL WOULD BRING TOTAL TO $300 MILLION.
The lowest bid opened Thursday to complete the controversial Belmont Learning Center was nearly $40 million higher than school officials had estimated, potentially boosting the cost for the nation's most-expensive school to well over $300 million.
Los Angeles Unified officials had estimated that the renovation and construction project - including adding a system to safeguard the structures from gases rising from a shallow oil field nearby - would cost nearly $90 million.
But the low bid, submitted by Hensel Phelps Construction Co. of Irvine, was $128.9 million.
So with a $111 million budget to finish the school - including $11 million already spent on design, maintenance and other costs - the district is about $30 million short.
Superintendent Roy Romer, who has made finishing the star-crossed school a priority since taking over the district in July 2000, said he was surprised by the bids but still believes it's a ``better bargain'' to proceed. He said the district might have to repay the state for some of its costs if the project is abandoned.
``Look, obviously I'm concerned about that bid,'' Romer said, noting that hurricanes on the Gulf Coast have driven up construction costs nationwide. ``But we'd pay more if we started anew, and we need the (school) seats.''
Romer said he's looking for new sources of money, which could include state matching funds and would require board approval, as well as where costs could be cut.
School board member David Tokofsky, who has long opposed the project that twice has been killed by the school board, said the rising price tag is a cause for concern.
``I think it might be better to turn the whole thing into a parking lot and make some money out of it,'' Tokofsky said.
Ron Tutor, president of Tutor-Saliba Corp., the Sylmar company that submitted the second-lowest bid, $139.5 million, said the Belmont project is complex and contains ``lots of risks.''
``There aren't a lot of positive vibes,'' Tutor said.
The third bid was for $141.9 million, submitted by Amoroso Construction Co. of Costa Mesa.
About half of the school, which has been renamed Vista Hermosa, was erected without proper safety measures against potentially explosive methane and toxic hydrogen sulfide gases. Construction was halted by state officials in 1999, two years after ground was broken.
About three years ago, an earthquake fault was identified under part of the school, resulting in two buildings being torn down and the campus reconfigured.
Originally pitched as a model of innovation as a public-private partnership for about 5,000 students on a year-round schedule at a ``guaranteed price'' of $86 million, the project now would cost about $252 million. That does not include the $60 million paid for the land and the $15.8 million in debt service the project has racked up.
It now is to be split into seven ``small learning communities,'' for 2,600 students on a two-semester schedule.
Beth Barrett, (818) 713-3731