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BELMONT COULD HINGE ON 1 VOTE PRO OR CON.

Byline: Greg Gittrich Staff Writer

A citizen commission's narrow endorsement of the Belmont Learning Center has failed to convince three Los Angeles school board members that the $282 million public works fiasco should be completed.

The immediate opposition from three board members Thursday signifies there is no clear-cut mandate to build Belmont but leaves open the possibility that completion of the nation's costliest high school could still be approved by a 4-3 board vote.

Only one board member, Victoria Castro, a loyal Belmont supporter, told the Daily News on Thursday that she would vote to complete the high school if she had to decide immediately.

After hearing testimony from several commissioners, board members Julie Korenstein, David Tokofsky and Caprice Young said they oppose going forward.

The remaining board members withheld their opinions until they could read the commission's written report. The board president, Genethia Hayes, said she was undecided but unmoved by arguments from Cruz Reynoso, a former state Supreme Court justice and chairman of the commission, that the school should be finished.

``I got the impression that Justice Reynoso was making the point for the minority side, the side he didn't vote for. That's troubling,'' Hayes said.

Hayes also said she thought it was odd that only two of the commissioners who voted to go forward with Belmont, Reynoso and Janett Humphries, attended the board meeting Thursday.

``Why were they absent?'' she asked about the others. ``When you are absolutely, positively passionate about something, when you want to see something get done, you rearrange your life to get here to speak. That obviously didn't happen.''

While expressing concerns about the costs of the project and desire to read the commission report, Castro praised the panel's recommendation, saying it gave her direction and guidance.

``It's taken (Belmont) for me out of the political arena,'' Castro said. ``I'm trying to take this out of politics and be a good policy maker.''

Long-term risks

But Korenstein, Tokofsky and Young cited the long-term risks posed by placing children and teachers in a school built atop an oil field that seeps methane and hydrogen-sulfide gases as clear reasons to scrap the project.

``Your heart goes out to the community on a daily basis. But whenever people put their mind to it, instead of their hearts, they come up with the fear about the risks and jeopardies of putting children at Belmont,'' Tokofsky said.

Young said there is no way she would send her children to Belmont.

``So my vote has to be no, don't build this school,'' she explained. ``That said, we need to build the community a new, safe school as soon as possible. The majority of the board feels the same way.''

Korenstein, who has led opposition against Belmont for two years, delivered the most direct answer.

``It doesn't matter if I had to vote today. Whenever we vote, I will never, ever vote for Belmont,'' she said.

Along with Hayes, board members Valerie Fields and Mike Lansing refused to reveal their position now or predict how they will eventually vote.

Nevertheless, Hayes and Lansing said they were troubled and surprised that the commission voiced reservations about the LAUSD's long-term ability to operate a system that would extract and monitor gases, which would be necessary to keep Belmont from exploding and children from becoming ill.

``I am surprised that even those who voted to go forward had so many questions about their vote,'' Lansing said. ``There is definitely not a big, thundering herd of support to go forward on this.''

Reynoso did not passionately champion the project during his testimony to the board. Instead, he presented a reluctant recommendation that it be completed if the board stipulates to some terms and conditions.

He said the board would need to seek legal advice from the state attorney general, require the highest-quality gas-control system for the school, set aside funds immediately to maintain and monitor the system for as long as the site was used for students, designate regulators within the district to oversee monitoring and maintenance of the system, and pursue legislation to ensure that officials outside of LAUSD would oversee the internal regulators' work.

``These recommendations need to be done,'' Reynoso told the Daily News. ``If they are not, there are serious questions about going forward.

``I'm not backing down from my decision, but if the school board decides not to go forward, I won't regret anything. I think that would be understandable. It is a perfectly legitimate stance to take under these conditions.''

Wednesday vote

The commission voted 4-3 on Wednesday to recommend completion of Belmont, located downtown atop an oil field pervaded by explosive and toxic gases.

The panel's two environmental experts and a public works professional voted against continuing construction, concluding the site could not be made safe.

Former District Attorney Ira Reiner, who advised the commission but did not have a vote on it, urged the board never to send students to the Belmont site.

``It is not your disaster unless you accept the majority view and vote to go forward with Belmont,'' Reiner told the school board. ``At that moment you have adopted Belmont as your disaster. That would be the most grievous mistake that this board could make. Belmont would be the iceberg that you crashed into.''

Reiner said legal problems and designing and installing a system to try to control Belmont's environmental dangers would prevent the partially completed school from opening for at least four years.

Reiner also argued that the district has poisoned its relationship with the state Legislature by pouring money into Belmont. He said state officials have vowed not to give the district even $1 for Belmont but have agreed to provide money for schools on clean sites.

The school board, which created the advisory commission in July after a series of Daily News investigative articles on Belmont, is scheduled to vote Nov. 2 on the complex's fate. Nearly all construction has been halted since August.

Even if Belmont is completed, school board members vowed Thursday to expedite construction of two other high schools in the inner city to relieve massive overcrowding in urban classrooms. The district has promised the low-income Latino community around Belmont a new high school for more than two decades.

``We need to find alternative sites and get them ready to go. . . . These parents want schools for their youngsters, and they have been overlooked,'' Hayes said. ``This community needs three schools not one.''

Along with Reynoso, those voting for the project's completion were Humphries, president of the Service Employees International Union; Ira Monosson, a former officer for the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health; and Charles Calderon, a former state senator and assemblyman.

Those who voted against going forward were Craig Perkins, director of Environmental and Public Works Management in Santa Monica; David Beckman, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Fund; and Maribel Marin, a city public works commissioner.

What board members say

A day after an advisory commission narrowly recommended that the Los Angeles Unified School District finish the Belmont Learning Center, the Daily News asked school board members how they would vote if asked to do so today. The board is scheduled to vote in two weeks.

``The commission has given me direction and guidance. It's taken it for me out of the political arena. We need more a definitive amount for the costs... If we abandon Belmont, we still have to build another high school in the downtown area.

- VICTORIA CASTRO

Vote: Build Belmont

``It doesn't matter if I had to vote today. Whenever we vote, I will never, ever vote for Belmont.''

- JULIE KORENSTEIN

Vote: Don't build Belmont

``Would I send my child to Belmont? The answer is no. So my vote has to be no don't build this school. That said we need to build the community a new safe school as soon as possible.''

- CAPRICE YOUNG

Vote: Don't build Belmont.

``Our heart goes out to the community on a daily basis. But whenever people put their mind to it, instead of their hearts, they come up with the fear about the risks and jeopardies of putting children at Belmont.''

- DAVID TOKOFSKY

Vote: Don't build Belmont

``What (Belmont Commission member) Maribel Marin said carries a lot of weight with me... She is one of the smartest people in this city. I can't ignore that she voted not to go forward. We need to find alternative sites... If we don't need them, we don't need them.''

- GENETHIA HAYES

Vote: No comment

``I am suprised that even those who voted to go forward had so many questions about their vote. There is definitely not a big thundering herd of support to go forward on this.''

- MIKE LANSING

Vote: No comment

``I need to see the commission's full report. It wouldn't be fair to comment until I read the report and take full advantage of their work.''

- VALERIE FIELDS

Vote: No comment

Compiled by staff writers Greg Gittrich and Beth Barrett.

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, box

Photo: (1) Victoria Castro

(2) Julie Korenstein

(3) Captrice Young

(4) David Tokofsky

(5) Genethia Hayes

(6) Mike Lansing

(7) Valerie Fields

Box: What board members say (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 22, 1999
Words:1531
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