L.A. To Use Loans To Begin School Construction

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Construction of what might be the nation's most expensive high school can go forward in Los Angeles, thanks to a financing plan that even supporters hope will be temporary.

The Los Angeles school board last week approved by a bare majority the loans needed to start building the $87 million Belmont Learning Complex on a downtown site.

Stymied by debate over the proposed use of bonds for the project, the seven-member board opted for more expensive loans, called certificates of participation, that must be repaid from the district's general fund.

A citizens' committee set up to oversee the district's new $2.4 billion bond program recommended early this month against using bond proceeds for Belmont--at least until the state decides whether to approve matching funds.

George Kiriyama, one of three board members who voted against the financing plan, said the project costs too much and should have been competitively bid. He also questioned whether the state will approve funding for the project, as supporters expect.

"I'm not 100 percent confident like the others are that the state will come up with the money," he said.

If state money becomes available, some board members have said, the district will pay for its share of the school's cost with bond money. In that case, the certificates of participation would be paid off early.

Too Extravagant?

Voters in the 670,000-student district--the nation's second largest--approved the massive bond issue in April. Many Spanish-speaking parents in the inner city envisioned that Belmont and other new schools would be built with the proceeds, thereby rescuing their children from long bus rides. ("A Poor Neighborhood With a View of a New School as a White Knight," April 2, 1997.)

But others have protested the Belmont project, a mega-high school designed for 5,600 students year round, with four career-focused academies set amid new housing and stores. Critics have said that the plan is extravagant in light of the district's overall needs and that school officials have fumbled its execution so far by picking Kajima Urban Development as the construction manager.

Both the Los Angeles' teachers' union and disgruntled workers from a hotel owned by Kajima's parent company, Kajima International Inc. of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., have charged that the district violated laws on competitive bidding in selecting Kajima. They say the misstep will cost the project state matching funds.

Meanwhile, district officials hope to start tearing out streets to make way for the school no later than August. Belmont is scheduled to open in 1999.

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