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BELMONT DEAD BOARD MAJORITY BACKS PROPOSAL TO KILL SCHOOL.

Byline: Greg Gittrich Staff Writer

The Belmont Learning Center is dead.

Six years after a rogue group of Los Angeles Unified administrators and consultants dreamed up a plan to build the nation's costliest high school atop an oil field, the district's top two leaders recommended Thursday that the $175 million project be abandoned as a school.

A majority of the school board pledged to back the recommendation and to fast-track efforts to relieve overcrowding and reduce busing of students in the downtown area.

But it was unclear whether the board would go along with the proposal of interim Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines and Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller to use Belmont as a new LAUSD administrative headquarters.

``As a potential high school the Belmont Learning Complex, conceived in ignorance and nurtured by negligence, is a vortex of contamination that would continue to draw energy, resources, controversy and disaster,'' Miller wrote in his report to the school board.

``It is time to decide, finally, that the site and buildings will not be used for a school, and move on.''

Miller and Cortines found that much-needed classroom space for the neighborhood in the Belmont attendance area could be provided within a shorter period of time if the district focused on finding alternative sites for a downtown campus.

MAJORITY VIEW

A majority of the Los Angeles school board members told the Daily News that they would formally vote to scrap Belmont as a school at the board's Feb. 8 meeting.

After months of deliberations over the complex's fate, board members Genethia Hayes, Julie Korenstein, David Tokofsky and Caprice Young pledged to kill the campus.

``I have always been against Belmont on safety issues,'' said Hayes, the board president. ``There is nothing in this recommendation that tells me I was off the mark.''

The majority, however, did not embrace a portion of the recommendation that calls for the land to be used for administrative offices and warehouse space. They also were not pleased that the report failed to include details for an alternative campus.

Victoria Castro, who represents the overcrowded Belmont attendance area and has long been the project's leading champion, rejected the entire report.

``It's not enough. If it's not going to be Belmont, what's it going to be?'' Castro questioned. ``Give me the costs, give me the time lines, give me the specifics. This once again falls short on all of those.''

The Latino community around Belmont has been promised a school for more than 20 years. Castro said she will encourage community groups to work with the American Civil Liberties Union to seek ways, including litigation, to prevent Belmont from being abandoned.

``It gives no long-term solutions to this area,'' she said. ``This community has voiced to me that they are fed up with ideas. They want specific answers.''

PADLOCKED SITE

A brown stone-and-steel monolith, Belmont sits padlocked on a sloping downtown lot sandwiched between freeways and surrounded by low-income housing. The campus was never intended to be merely a high school, but a ``learning center'' for more than 5,000 students that would include a shopping mall and acres of parkland.

Despite repeated warnings, the school district and a development team led by Kajima Urban Development started building the complex without adequate safety systems to protect against explosive methane gas and deadly hydrogen sulfide rising from the oil field.

Extensive tests revealed last summer that the 35-acre parcel cannot be cleaned up and the school may not be safe even with costly mitigation systems.

In their report, Miller and Cortines concluded that it remains unknown ``whether the site can ever be made sufficiently safe for students.

``The poor and minorities, as well as the wealthy and comfortable, are equally entitled to the safest schools. Any other basis of decision amounts to environmental apartheid, a path on which our society cannot go.''

In addition, Belmont would take at least five years to complete, while temporary, if not permanent, classroom space likely could be ready within two years, said Cortines, who assumed control of the district Sunday.

``I felt that I just could no longer hold to the idea of finishing Belmont,'' said Cortines, who previously supported the complex's completion.

``We have to have seats in some temporary way for these students by September of next year,'' he said. ``It's got to be about finding seats.''

He noted the state has refused to provide any money to complete Belmont and retrofit the complex with a mitigation system at a combined cost of more than $100 million.

Unlike other school construction projects, money for Belmont has come largely from the district's general fund, the same pool of cash used to pay for books and supplies. ``That cannot continue,'' Cortines said.

Cortines suggested several potential sites for schools in the Belmont area, including the vacant Terminal Annex post office, the district's administrative headquarters and high-rise buildings along Wilshire Boulevard. State and local bond money would likely be available for these sites.

Reaction to the recommendations by Miller and Cortines was sharply divided.

``This is a positive sign,'' said Assemblyman Scott Wildman, D-Glendale, who spearheaded state efforts to block funding for the project. ``The kids are the winners in this. We will build them new and safe schools quickly.''

Day Higuchi, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said the union feels vindicated.

``We took a lot of crap for opposing Belmont. The entire Latino legislative delegation came down on us like a sack of bricks,'' Higuchi said. ``We're just glad the money that would have been poured into Belmont now can be poured into badly needed school construction.''

ANGRY REACTION

Belmont's backers reacted with anger and frustration.

``It is very, very irresponsible, outrageous and upsetting,'' said Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center.

Sanbrano's group is part of a civil rights coalition that is preparing a lawsuit to stop the board from abandoning Belmont, she said.

Former state Sen. Charles Calderon criticized the report's conclusion that Belmont should be used to house the district's administrative offices.

``If it's safe to work there, it's safe to go to school there,'' said Calderon, a member of a special citizens commission that narrowly advised the district last October to complete the school.

State toxic officials partially halted construction of Belmont last February and the school board voted to padlock the site in November.

Two audits of Belmont last year by Los Angeles Unified's top inspector revealed a cancer of incompetence in the district that allowed the ill-fated project to be built and exposed widespread financial abuses.

Toxic tests at the property were scheduled to be completed in June, but will likely take longer because of delays by the district, state Department of Toxic Substances Control officials said.

``The tests still need to be completed,'' said Hamid Saebfar, director of Southern California Clean-up Operations for the DTSC.

``There is a different standard for safety when you are looking at commercial uses of the land. The standards are easier to meet than those for schools or residential housing.

``We need to see how they want to finish this.''

CHRONOLOGY: 1988-2001

1988

NOV.--State gas official details the environmental dangers at Belmont.

< 1992

AUG.--Board authorizes the purchase of Belmont property without extensive environmental testing.

< 1995

SEPT.--Board picks Temple Beaudry Partners/Kajima as the developer, without competitive bidding.

< 1997

JUNE--Groundbreaking ceremony at Belmont. Board later approves using money from the district's general fund for Belmont.

< 1998

NOV.--State toxic officials inspect Belmont property. They conclude more tests are needed to understand hazards.

< 1999

FEB.--State partially halts construction at Belmont. District agrees to conduct additional environmental tests.

MAY-- Daily News discloses oil and gas problems are far more serious than had been reported.

JUNE-- Daily News reveals Belmont's lead developer, Kajima Urban Development, gave city fire officials incomplete data on methane hazards around campus.

JULY-- A reform slate of candidates takes control of the school board - elected largely upon their opposition to Belmont.

SEPT.--Internal LAUSD audit says former school board may have violated environmental laws after being misled by top staff.

--School board files malpractice lawsuit against O'Melveny & Myers, the lead outside counsel on Belmont.

OCT.--Citizens commission advises school board on a 4-3 vote to complete Belmont.

--School board votes to buy out the contract of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, largely for his management of Belmont.

--Ramon Cortines named to replace Zacarias. Howard Miller given LAUSD's top administrative post.

NOV.--School board votes to padlock Belmont. Weeks later, board fires lead developer, Kajima Urban Development.

DEC.--Second LAUSD audit reveals widespread financial abuses. Confirms district never had a budget for Belmont and spent at least $175 million.

< 2000

Jan. 20--Cortines, Miller recommend abandoning Belmont as a school. Majority of school board agrees. Vote scheduled for Feb. 8.

JUNE--Projected date for completion of environmental tests at Belmont by state toxic officials.

< 2001

SEPT.--Projected date for opening alternative school sites. School officials say Belmont could not have been completed until 2005.

HIGHLIGHTS

LAUSD interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines and Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller are recommending that:

--The school district abandon plans to build a high school at the Belmont Learning Center Complex.

--District administrative headquarters, including the Board of Education and superintendent's offices, be moved to the Belmont site.

--District headquarters be used for classroom space, including special academic programs now at the existing Belmont High School.

--Alternative sites - such as the now-closed postal Terminal Annex, vacant office buildings and district-owned property - be used to relieve overcrowding in the Belmont High School attendance area.

--The school district convert middle schools in the area to high schools and build primary centers for grades K-3.

CAPTION(S):

4 photos, 2 boxes, 2 maps

Photo:

(1 -- color) Signs made by students line the hallways Thursday at Belmont High demanding a new school.

David R. Crane/Staff Photographer

(2 -- color) MILLER

(3 -- color) CORTINES

(4) The partially completed Belmont Learning Center remains under plastic, but the fate of the $175 million project has apparently been sealed by the school board.

David R. Crane/Staff Photographer

Box:

(1) Chronology 1988-2001 (see text)

(2) HIGHLIGHTS (see text)

Map:

(1) Where it began. Belmont property: 35 acres

(2) Where will it end? The Los Angeles school board is considering several alternative sites for high schools in the downtown area. Thursday's report did not include specifics for any location.

Ambassador Hotel site; U.S. Postal Service's Terminal Annex Building; LAUSD Headquarters.

SOURCE: Daily News research

Staff Graphic
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 21, 2000
Words:1743
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