It’s a white elephant that won’t go away.
At $200 million and counting, the half-built Belmont Learning Complex that sits just west of the downtown skyscrapers here is the most expensive public school ever built in California--and, apparently, in the nation. And with officials wondering when, or whether, it will open its doors, the high school has become a radioactive topic in Los Angeles school politics and in next week’s school board elections.
With the average cost of a new high school in California around $66 million, critics of the current school board--and especially the candidates running against them--have not let the sticker shock go unnoticed. In debates, brochures, and television commercials, candidates have detailed what that $200 million could have bought for the overcrowded, understaffed Los Angeles Unified School District.
“Two thousand additional teachers, 4.5 million textbooks, and $800,000-plus worth of repairs and upgrades,” reads a brochure from candidate Genethia Hayes, one of four candidates supported by Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan.
And the controversy has spread to Sacramento, where a joint state legislative committee investigated the school and recently published an extensive report on its costs and construction.
“A 15-year disaster” is how state Rep. Scott Wildman, a Los Angeles Democrat and the chairman of the committee, describes the project. “It would be a comedy of errors if hundreds of millions of dollars weren’t wasted.”
Long, Tangled History
The Belmont Learning Complex’s troubled history, Mr. Wildman and others say, could fill a book. But the heart of the dispute is the hilly, 35-acre parcel of land on which the new school will sit. (“A Poor Neighborhood With a View of a New School as a White Knight,” April 2, 1997.)
The site, which has cost the district $60 million since 1994, is an abandoned oil field, and according to Mr. Wildman, district officials were warned of potential environmental hazards early on. He maintains that the district failed to perform adequate environmental tests of the site and pushed ahead with the purchase.
Now, after the district has already begun construction, a state environmental agency has concluded that the land is contaminated with hazardous carcinogens, including benzene, as well as methane, which is potentially explosive.
T. Bradford Sales, a spokesman for the Los Angeles district, says the environmental concerns have been exaggerated. After the school is built and the site is cleaned up, which he conceded could cost several million additional dollars, “we’ll have a beautiful school,” he said.
Land and construction costs in Los Angeles have been soaring since the 1980s, Mr. Sales noted. And the immense, state-of-the-art facility, which is slated to open in July of next year, will house more than 5,000 high school students.
Meanwhile, nearby Belmont High School is bursting at the seams. The building is scheduled to become a middle school when the new building opens, and educators there say they want an end to the controversy. “The only gas associated with the school is coming from its critics,” said Lewis B. McCammon, an assistant principal at Belmont High. “Most of Los Angeles was built on oil fields,” he added. “These kids, this neighborhood, need this school.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1999 edition of Education Week as Sticker Shock: $200 Million For an L.A. High School