School & District Management

L.A. Chief Recommends Abandoning Belmont

By Alan Richard — January 26, 2000 3 min read
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Top officials of the Los Angeles school system proposed last week that the district abandon the long-troubled construction project that, if finished, would be the most expensive public school ever built in the United States.

Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller’s proposal, endorsed by interim Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines, calls the Belmont Learning Center project a “disaster” and recommends that the school board consider the possibility of using the site as a new district headquarters.

The unfinished high school is situated on an old oil field, and environmental concerns and management troubles have plagued the project, which has already cost nearly $200 million. Estimates of the total cost of completing the project have soared above $250 million.

The school has become a financial and political fiasco for the nation’s second-largest district and played a role in the hiring of Mr. Cortines, a former New York City schools chancellor, to replace Superintendent Ruben Zacarias in November.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Cortines will present their recommendation to the school board this week, along with plans for easing crowding at the existing Belmont High School.

Board members could not be reached for comment late last week. But at least two members have raised concerns about the possibility of using the site as a district headquarters, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The announcement on the Belmont project came after the school board earlier this month decided to abandon another high school project, located in the South Gate area of the city.

The board decided Jan. 11 to end that project, which could have run into the same environmental and management problems that derailed the Belmont plan.

Some observers said the board’s decision not to build the South Gate high school—and instead build several smaller elementary schools and transform a middle school into a high school—made financial sense.

South Gate “represents a willingness to do something that in the short term is unpopular, in the interest of long-term common sense,” said Day Higuchi, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which is affiliated with both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. Mr. Higuchi had also urged the district to abandon the Belmont site.

Quick Moves

The recommendation on the Belmont project is one of several moves Mr. Cortines and the new administration have made during his first official weeks on the job.

Earlier this month, he put forth a plan to divide the 700,000-student district into 11 subdistricts, a plan based on Mr. Zacarias’ earlier idea for closer-to-home management of the district’s schools.

The proposal, which the school board will consider in March, would send hundreds of central-office administrators into various parts of the district. Mr. Zacarias earlier had called for 12 subdistricts but had not given specifics on that idea.

Mr. Cortines said the plan would allow the district to solve basic management problems by placing schools in smaller administrative clumps under local superintendents who would oversee about 55,000 students each.

“The Los Angeles Unified School District is in crisis,” Mr. Cortines writes in the first sentence of his 14-page plan. “The district must no longer exist as a closed system where decisions and authority flow from a central-office power structure,’' the document says. “Rather, the district must be an open system that serves the needs of all its students.”

Moving administrators closer to their schools makes sense, said Mr. Higuchi, the union president.

He said the proposal shows a willingness on the part of Mr. Cortines to tackle the district’s problems head-on. The union and others in Los Angeles have long complained of administrative inefficiencies in the nation’s second-largest district.

The union chief added that teachers have been encouraged by the interim superintendent’s many visits to schools. “The real question is, will whatever changes he makes persist into the next administration?” Mr. Higuchi said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as L.A. Chief Recommends Abandoning Belmont

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