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Published in Print: June 4, 2003, as L.A. Board Votes to Complete Troubled Belmont Complex

L.A. Board Votes to Complete Troubled Belmont Complex

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The Los Angeles school board will push ahead with plans to create the Belmont education complex, despite persistent concerns about the site's safety and a soaring price tag that makes it the most expensive school project in the nation.

The board of the Los Angeles Unified School District voted 4-3 on May 22 to commit another $131 million to finish the Belmont Learning Complex, which has already cost the district more than $154 million, yet sits uncompleted. Its total projected cost now exceeds $286 million, according to district spokeswoman Hilda Ramirez.

Officials of the 737,000-student district hope the complex will open within four years. It is one of a half-dozen projects now under way to ease overcrowding in the low-income neighborhoods of downtown Los Angeles.

When completed, the Belmont complex will add 3,100 new high school seats: 2,100 in one building, 500 in an academy, and another 500 in an academy a block away. The main, 34-acre site will also include a new cafeteria, auditorium, library, and parent center, and a community park.

Turbulent History

The original plan would have provided 5,400 seats, but community members still welcome the revised plan as a much-needed step. More than 2,400 teenagers are bused an hour or more each way to schools in the San Fernando Valley, on the north edge of the city.

Jose Huizar, the school board member who represents the Belmont area and advocated the latest plan, issued a statement calling its approval a "victory for our community."

Construction began on the Belmont Learning Center in 1997, but was halted in 2000, when underground toxins were discovered at the site, part of a former oil field. More study produced a plan to manage the toxic fumes, and work resumed at the site. But engineers discovered a seismic fault line on the property last year, and work was halted when scientists could not determine whether the fault was active.

The Los Angeles County district attorney investigated the Belmont project and concluded in a March report that it was mishandled, but found no violations of state law. ("No Criminal Wrongdoing Found in L.A. School Project," March 12, 2003.)

David N. Tokofsky, a school board member who voted against the newly approved plan, objects to the high price of the project and still harbors doubts about the site's safety.

"There is no assurance that the insurance will cover the ambulance chasers that will come," Mr. Tokofsky said. "[Potential plaintiffs] will have plenty of documents to show we knew exactly what was there environmentally and went ahead and built it."

Vol. 22, Issue 39, Page 9

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