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Published in Print: March 20, 2002, as Los Angeles Revives Beleaguered Belmont Project

Los Angeles Revives Beleaguered Belmont Project

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The Los Angeles school district, facing an urgent need to relieve overcrowding and seat thousands of new students, is pushing forward with construction of the vast Belmont Learning Center, the controversial facility that is believed to be the nation's most expensive public school.

The school board voted 6-1 last week to allow Superintendent Roy Romer to negotiate a contract with a construction group to finish work on the partially completed school, which rises above real estate that includes part of an oil field. The 737,000-student district, the nation's second largest, expects to bring the final deal to a vote within 90 days.

The board halted work on Belmont in 2000 after environmental testing of the 34-acre site revealed the presence of poisonous hydrogen sulfide and methane in the soil and a bitter public debate erupted over the potential health risk to students. ("L.A. Chief Recommends Abandoning Belmont," Jan. 26, 2000.)

Many Los Angeles residents doubted the school would ever open. But in December, at Mr. Romer's urging and after an independent panel of experts concluded that the site could be made safe, the board decided to restart the project.

"This is a victory for the children of Los Angeles," Mr. Romer said in a statement, which also noted that the planned 4,000-student high school would reduce the number of students bused out of their neighborhoods when it opens two or three years from now.

"This is a huge vote of confidence that we're going to be able to build all the schools [needed]," said school board President Caprice Young. The district plans to open 78 new schools over the next five years while adding on to 60 existing buildings.

Ms. Young, who voted to stop the project two years ago, reversed her stance last week, because "we're under new management," she said in an interview. "Two years ago, we had a completely incompetent facilities staff. It's not the case now."

Safety Precautions

The cost to finish the school is from $67 million to $87 million, officials said. Added to the $154 million the district has already spent on the site, that apparently would make the school the most expensive ever built in the nation.

As a result of the Belmont saga, the California legislature passed a law requiring potential school sites to undergo an environmental review by the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control before new schools are built.

The new construction contract, to be negotiated with the nonprofit Alliance for a Better Community, is to include the installation of an elaborate system of pipes beneath the entire 34-acre site, not just the portions that were the focus of concerns. The so-called "active mitigation" system, recommended by the expert panel, would draw hydrogen sulfide and methane out of the soil.

The system would cost $10 million to $15 million. In addition, a monitoring system to detect minute levels of toxins would be operated by an outside contractor, at a cost of $150,000 per year for 30 years, district officials said.

Vol. 21, Issue 27, Page 5

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