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LAUSD EXPLOITS LOOPHOLE IN LAW; $300 MILLION SOUGHT FOR 40 NEW CAMPUSES.

Byline: Terri Hardy Sacramento Bureau

Despite the environmental problems over Belmont Learning Center and other new schools, LAUSD officials hope to use a new legal loophole to snare $300 million in state funds for 44 new campuses before they conduct environmental and planning studies.

The loophole, being exploited only by Los Angeles Unified and one other district, was written into a bill the legislature approved last year when it put Proposition 1A, the $9.2 billion school facilities bond measure, on the ballot.

The state Department of Education and critics of the district's environmental record did not recognize - until now - that the provision allocated $700 million for districts to reduce class size without normal safety protections in advance of funding.

Now, after having failed to capture any of the voter-approved bond money allocated so far for new school construction under Proposition 1A, Los Angeles Unified School District officials hope to use the little-known loophole extensively, the Daily News has learned.

State officials acknowledge the loophole leaves them little authority to ensure that land for new campuses is free of environmental problems, and fear the provision could pave the way for a repetition of the debacle surrounding the Belmont Learning Center, the nation's costliest school which is being built atop an oil field.

Assemblyman Scott Wildman, D-Glendale, a member of the State Allocation Board which disburses new school funds, said he would fight any LAUSD attempt to win state financing without putting each property through a stringent environmental review.

``I'm not writing Los Angeles Unified a blank check that could go towards funding other Belmonts,'' said Wildman, who has extensively investigated Belmont. ``They do not have a record that would allow you to trust them.''

The immediate cash the LAUSD is reaching for is available only to districts that meet two criteria - they must have severely overcrowded schools that have been unable to reduce kindergarten through third-grade classes to 20 students, and must be able to provide 50 percent matching funds using local dollars. LAUSD has such funds from Proposition BB.

The rule was expected to apply to a handful of districts statewide, but only L.A. Unified and the Santa Ana Unified School District applied.

The waiver is a provision of Senate Bill 50, authored by former Sen. Leroy Greene, D-Sacramento. SB50 put Proposition 1A on the ballot and earmarked a total of $6.7 billion for kindergarten through 12th grade, including $700 million for class size reduction and other amounts for school modernization, new school construction and other uses.

State Department of Education officials said they did not consider the ramifications of the provision granting expedited funds for class-size reduction. But they emphasized that the LAUSD would ultimately have to put parcels through environmental review after receiving state funding.

In the past, the school district received state money and used it to purchase contaminated property without proper environmental tests. At the downtown Belmont high school property, the district is at a crossroads - either abandon the project after spending $123 million or spend millions more for cleanup. Environmental problems also have troubled two other new schools, Jefferson and South Gate.

Safeguards removed

To avoid another Belmont, state officials have revamped their approval process, making it necessary for the state to sign off on a property before L.A. Unified gets money. But under the class-size reduction provision those safeguards would not be in place, state officials said.

``What's to prevent the LAUSD from buying land before state approval? They (would already have) the money,'' said Duwayne Brooks, director of school facilities and planning for the Department of Education.

L.A. Unified officials dismiss those concerns, saying new policies within the district will ensure that any new land purchased is safe for students.

``I don't see another Belmont happening,'' said Lynn Roberts, the district's new general manager of facilities. She noted the district would be working with an in-house safety team assembled in the wake of the Belmont problems, as well as the state, before it bought any property.

Under a new board policy, each school would have a program manager with experience in environmental safety as well as construction, said Genethia Hayes, president of the Los Angeles school board, who was elected on promises of reform and concerns about Belmont.

``There would be one person accountable,'' Hayes said. ``That was the problem with Belmont, the district had not designated one person to do all the things we needed to do.''

Steve Soboroff, chairman of the citizen's watchdog group that oversees the $2.4 billion local bond measure for school construction and maintenance, said the panel has recommended that no Proposition BB funds be used for new school sites unless the district obtains an environmental insurance policy.

``If something is found to be wrong with the land afterwards, it will be the insurance company that pays for it,'' he said.

Going for the money

Lyle Smoot, the LAUSD's state building program coordinator, said the district will go to the State Allocation Board this month for funds to build 44 schools to ease congestion caused by the state's reduction of class sizes in grades K-3.

Despite assurances from district officials, critics like Wildman say a district as ``dysfunctional'' as the LAUSD cannot be turned around in a matter of months. He noted that when the state last turned over $1 billion in bond money to the LAUSD, the district only gained six elementary schools and one middle school.

``Until they clean house there, the same problems are going to happen,'' Wildman said.

Toxic legacy

So potentially dangerous is the accumulation of methane gas at the Belmont site that a special commission will consider whether the district can safely operate Belmont, or must stop construction. A district safety team has said the district should not have purchased the site.

School officials are also facing the possibility of abandoning the Tweedy Elementary School site, which to date has received $16 million in state funds. A recent estimate to clean up the hazardous conditions there was deemed ``too expensive'' by district officials, and the LAUSD could walk away if another, cheaper alternative is not available, Smoot said. The possibility of cleaning up another problem site, the new South Gate High School, is still ``up in the air'' Smoot said.

Smoot said the cash will help keep the LAUSD toward its goal of building 100 new schools over the next decade.

Since Proposition 1A was approved, the LAUSD has failed to submit a single application for new campus funds, despite repeated statements that they would be deluging the state with requests.

To receive those funds for an additional 54 schools that do not qualify for the immediate cash waiver, environmental reviews must be completed before the application is submitted. Smoot admits that this environmental requirement has been the main obstacle behind its failure to submit a request.

``Belmont raised such hackles that we want to know the situation at a site before we go forward,'' Smoot said.

The district's failure to capture any funds has worried the citizen's watchdog committee that oversees the local bond funds that will be used to match state money.

``There's a decent chance that L.A. will not get funding to build but a handful of the 50 to 100 schools it needs,'' said David Abel, a member of the Proposition BB committee.

Even if the district is able to receive the $300 million immediately, it still must pursue funding for an additional 54 schools in the conventional manner. Abel notes that the district must quickly ``get its act together'' to line up properties and get environmental and design approval.

Additional Proposition 1A funds for new schools will be available July 2000, and Abel and others expect competition will be fierce for the funds.

``If the LAUSD falls woefully short, it will damage confidence of the voters,'' Abel said.

Bruce Hancock, the assistant executive officer of the State Allocation Board, said he had expected applications from the LAUSD and noted that the money is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis.

``It's a matter of how long the money holds out,'' Hancock said. ``There's this urban myth that the LAUSD is going to come up here and snap up all the money from the small districts, but the reality is that the opposite is happening.''

Hancock agreed that LAUSD's main problem has been environmental.

``The LAUSD is in a very difficult situation,'' Hancock said. ``It's got to build schools, but it is having a heck of a time identifying sites that don't have seemingly insurmountable environmental problems.''

Of the $1.3 billion available this year for new school construction, $761 million has so far been approved to 29 districts. There was an additional $800 million available for modernization projects, and that fund has been exhausted. The LAUSD received $54 million from those funds. Two requests submitted to the state well before the passage of Proposition 1A were approved and ``grandfathered,'' records show.

Full-court press

So important is the cash that the LAUSD hired Smoot, the former deputy director of the State Allocation Board, to coordinate its building program. The first priority of the $98,839-a-year job is to speed applications through the state process.

Three consulting firms have also been brought in to write the applications. Van Gundy and Associates will receive $49,000 this year. Building Systems Management's contract is increasing from $49,000 to $149,000 a year and School Facilities Consultants' contract will rise from $149,000 to $249,000 a year.

Despite these measures, BB committee members said they have serious concerns about whether the LAUSD will be able to get funding for the 54 schools.

``The state does not take into consideration the problems that urban districts face, including environmental problems, the time to get land and issues of building schools on tight spaces,'' Soboroff said.

Others say that the LAUSD was never capable of handling the job. District personnel - including board members and top officials in facilities and real estate - were overwhelmed by the task.

``They were totally unprepared professionally to cope with this challenge,'' one insider said.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 8, 1999
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