Published Online: April 2, 1997

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A Poor Neighborhood With a View of a New School as a White Knight

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Los Angeles

On a litter-strewn hill in the middle of downtown, a neighborhood of poor, Spanish-speaking parents sees nothing less than the American Dream.

The neighborhood, which buses more students than any other in the Los Angeles school district, envisions a gleaming mega-high school on the hill for 5,400 of its children, with four career-focused academies, top-notch technology, and expansive athletic fields.

The neighborhood views the new high school as a white knight that will rescue its children from long bus rides. But critics see it as a white elephant that is burdened with legal, financial and environmental problems. Cost estimates to build the school and convert the nearby Belmont High School into a middle school have soared from $60 million in 1995 to nearly $90 million.

The controversy comes at a bad time for the district, which is trying to persuade voters to approve next week's massive bond proposal for school repairs and construction. The school board was scheduled to vote on the project late last month, but officials yanked the item for fear it would raise an untimely question: If the district can't keep a single construction project in line, how can it be expected to handle $2.4 billion?

Parents Impatient

The Belmont Learning Complex would be the district's first comprehensive high school built in more than two decades.

"How much longer do we have to wait?" demanded Maria Rodriguez, who has four children in the district, two of whom take a city bus to get to middle school.

To gear up for the next school board vote on the project, set for April 21, she and about 15 other parents met recently with four school officials and a state assemblyman around a U-shaped table in a dingy building next to Belmont High School. Everyone wore headphones to listen to English or Spanish translations.

After school employees gave a technical explanation of the project's financing, parent David Lugo stood up: "Please support us and we will support you," he said in Spanish, pounding the desk in front of him. "Some people think we're a dirty neighborhood, and it's true we have limited resources. ... But we are going to claim our rights and fight for education like David against Goliath."

Mr. Lugo's impassioned remarks underscored the fierce emotions surrounding the project. Three of the seven board members as well as several city and state lawmakers have expressed serious concerns about the cost.

If the measure known as Proposition BB passes on April 8, bonds would pay for half of the school. Otherwise, the district would have to seek more costly financing--a prospect that seems unlikely, said school board member David Tokofsky.

"The school would still have a shot on paper," he said. "But it doesn't have a shot in reality."

Panorama Boosts Price

Mr. Tokofsky remarked that the school's hilly site--which commands a spectacular view of downtown and cost a stunning $61 million--adds considerably to construction costs. But board member Victoria Castro, one of the project's champions, said, "In downtown L.A., you take the land where you can get it."

The district's relationship with a limited partnership called Temple/Beaudry Partners, led by developer Kajima International Inc., has also caused headaches. The partnership, which has drawn up plans for the school and obtained government permits, wants to oversee construction.

A union from a downtown hotel owned by Kajima's parent company has been lobbying against the school to draw attention to its own grievances. And another developer has sued the district, saying that it would have competed for the project if it had known that a law firm that represents a district negotiator also works for Kajima.

If the school board rejects the contract with Temple/Beaudry, the partnership will walk away with $5.36 million, though the district could keep the design plans. School officials say construction would be delayed for at least 18 months.

The environmental concerns stem from oil wells dating back to the 1800s that dot the 35-acre site. The district has recapped 14 dry wells and plans to relocate the only working one, which pumps 70 barrels a day from what would be second base on the new baseball field.

A state conservation official has told the board that methane gas could leak from the site. But Ray Rodriguez, an educator and construction-company owner who was hired to be the district's point man on the project, said it is safe.

He hopes to break ground on the high school at the end of the month.

School board politics have also intruded into the issue. The board member most often identified with the project is Ms. Castro, who represents the Belmont neighborhood and grew up near there.

Project and Politics Mix

"The politics of the situation is that Vicki Castro wants to be able to say she built the school and run for another office," said Day Higuchi, the president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, which has not taken a formal position on the project.

Ms. Castro acknowledged that she may run for state office someday, but she said her support for the school is heartfelt. She grew up in a poor family with four brothers, a mother who worked as a seamstress, and a Mexican-born father who made furniture. Neither parent made it past 7th grade.

"The Belmont neighborhood represents my parents just trying to survive and support their families," Ms. Castro said."I believe the neighborhood has been underserved in community services and education needs."

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