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Published in Print: May 16, 2001, as L.A. Unified Vows To Construct 85 Schools by 2006

L.A. Unified Vows To Construct 85 Schools by 2006

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Los Angeles school leaders have set 2006 as their deadline to build 85 new schools in a push to relieve severe overcrowding and improve facilities.

Superintendent Roy Romer announced the deadline for the first time this month and also revealed the proposed locations of the new schools.

Today, about 16,000 students in the 723,000-student district are bused to schools outside their neighborhoods because the local schools are full. In addition to the new schools, the $1.8 billion construction program would expand 62 existing campuses as well as 20 playgrounds.

"What we have going here is one of the largest public works projects in the United States," said Mr. Romer, the former Colorado governor who took the helm of the country's second-largest school district last year. "It isn't all going to go smoothly."

Los Angeles knows full well the pitfalls that can undermine good intentions. The district is still trying to figure out what to do about the Belmont Learning Center. Construction on the nearly completed high school was halted last year because hazardous chemicals were found on the site.

Last month, district officials asked for private-sector bids to see if the site could be leased, sold, or cleaned up and eventually opened as a school. To date, the district has spent $175 million on the school.

The school district and the state of California hope to avoid a repeat of the Belmont debacle through stricter environmental reviews. For now, though, the most immediate challenge facing the district is finding land—any land—in the sprawling metropolitan area that can be used for new schools.

Juggling Act

After a helicopter tour of the city with Mr. Romer, James A. McConnell Jr., the district's new chief of facilities, said that "every empty parcel of land either belonged to [the district], was being looked at by the district, or had been rejected."

Land costs could be the most daunting obstacle to the construction program.

And while the district could go to court and force property owners to sell the needed land through the process known as eminent domain, Mr. McConnell said, there isn't enough time.

To qualify for more than $400 million in state construction aid, the district must own the property and submit architectural plans to the state for as many schools as possible by June of next year.

"Our strategy is to do it through a willing seller if we can," Mr. McConnell said.

To make the strategy work, Mr. Romer is counting on the organizational skills of Mr. McConnell. The former commander of the 31st Naval Construction Regiment at Port Hueneme north of Los Angeles was headed for a post at the U.S. Naval Academy until Mr. Romer persuaded him to take over the district's construction program in April.

"People wonder why I got out of the Navy to do this," said Mr. McConnell, 48. "I consider it a high form of public service. I hope we can do this. I'm sure we can."

"We're not slacking off or losing time," added Linda Salomon, who was hired recently to handle media relations on school construction issues and to help the district's new community-outreach branch. "We're working against the clock and doing five different things at the same time."

In the past year, Mr. Romer has reorganized the facilities division by hiring experienced construction experts to oversee projects and make sure building and environmental experts are working together to carry out projects.

In addition to building an organization that is up to the task of carrying out the construction drive, Mr. McConnell wants to restore the public's confidence in a district that has talked about new schools far more than it has delivered them.

"It's a serious problem. If past were prologue, [the skeptics would] be right," he added. "There's been one new high school in 30 years. There's been talk, but no results."

Vol. 20, Issue 36, Page 3

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