Stories & Grievances
Belmont Learning Complex: All That Money To Build a School Over a Toxic Dump
$270 Million and School Could at Last Be Finished
By NICK MADIGAN, NY TIMES, June 28, 2004
LOS ANGELES, June 27 - In the shadow of downtown, the Temple-Beaudry neighborhood, modest, a little ramshackle and mostly Latino, was broken up two decades ago, dozens of its houses razed for a high school that has yet to open.
Residents who remained in the neighborhood were promised again and again that the school would be built, that their children would no longer be carted off every morning to classrooms miles away.
"There were people who had lived there 30, 35 years who changed their whole way of life for nothing," said Jesus Gutierrez, a retired gardener who has lived in Temple-Beaudry longer than that. "It was traumatic."
The project, already partly built, was held up by what many residents and officials say was mismanagement, protracted political battles, wasted money and even corruption. An investigation begun in 2000 by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office called it a "public works disaster of biblical proportions," but no charges were filed.
Last week, however, the school board voted once again to approve the Belmont Learning Complex, and this time it is unlikely to be reversed. When completed, it will have cost about $270 million, $175 million of which has been spent.
It will be the most expensive high school ever built, district officials say.
Construction began in the summer of 1997. By February of the next year, methane was found to be leaking onto the 35-acre site from an old oil field underneath it. Some officials expressed surprise, even though as far back as 1988 a state gas inspector suggested there were problems on the site.
After the methane was found, officials waited until 2000 before deciding to halt construction while trying to find a way to remove the gas. Then, in 2002, earthquake faults were discovered under two of the partly completed buildings, though it was not known whether the faults were active or dormant.
"The superintendent said, 'Let's assume they're active,' " Carlos Martinez, the project manager for the site, recalled, referring to the schools chief, Roy Romer, who was determined to get the school off the ground.
Under the new plan, the two buildings on the faults will be pulled down and rebuilt elsewhere on the site. Such changes added significantly to the project's cost, which included buying the land and cleaning up chemicals.
In the vote last week, school board members certified the environmental impact report for the site, deciding that the potential for harm from methane and other hazards had been averted.
Some officials openly say that some of their predecessors were incompetent.
"They hadn't done enough investigation of the site," Mr. Martinez, who has been on the job just six months, said. "No one knew exactly what was here. It has such a bad stigma."
In a concession to the school's tarnished reputation, it will not be called the Belmont Learning Complex once it is completed. For the time being, its official name will be Central Los Angeles Area High School No. 11, though it may well end up with Vista Hermosa - beautiful view, in Spanish - in honor of the park that is to be built on one side of the property.
The learning complex, which is expected to hold about 2,600 students when it opens in the fall of 2007 - barring any other hitches - is to be one of 160 new schools in what is the second largest district in the country, behind New York's. The Los Angeles district has more than 700 schools and 740,000 students, not counting preschool and adult students.
To pay for construction of the new buildings and modernization of many existing schools, Los Angeles County voters approved three bond measures since 1997, which, when added to matching state money, will pay for the projects' estimated cost of about $15 billion.
"We needed to resolve Belmont," Jim McConnell, chief of facilities for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said in an interview on Friday. "Even if we build 160 schools, we would still be defined by the failure of Belmont if we couldn't turn it out."
In addition to helping relieve the need to bus more than 4,000 students out of the area every day, the new school would vastly improve conditions at the old Belmont High School a quarter mile away, where 5,500 students toil in a facility designed for 1,500 more than 80 years ago.
"When you're going down the hallway, it's like going through downtown at rush hour," said Jennifer W. Solís, 17, the student body president at Belmont. "The classrooms are small and the stairwells are narrow. We were promised we'd be out of there four years ago."
The new school will come too late for Ms. Solís, who lobbied state legislators for help in getting it finished. "It won't help me, but it'll help the people in my neighborhood," she said.
Ms. Solís and her father, Randy Waller, long a critic of the school district, stopped by its downtown offices on Friday afternoon to congratulate José Huizar, who became president of the school board a year ago, on getting the project approved.
Mr. Huizar, in an interview in his office, said that under his direction, things would be different. "This is not the old administration that did waste millions and millions of dollars on the site," he said. "There is a political will to do this now. The communities understand that we need schools and that we cannot continue with the overcrowded conditions."
On Friday afternoon, people from the Temple-Beaudry neighborhood gathered at Spiraling Orchard, a small park a couple of blocks from the site, to discuss the school and the changes it might bring. Some recalled their fear that the contaminated land would make their children sick but said they had been reassured.
Some residents said they also hoped that a soccer field planned for the school would help keep children away from street gangs.
"I think it's fantastic that they're finally going to do something with this land after they've displaced so many families," said Alex Cotté, who described himself as a community organizer and who said that a church on the site had also been demolished along with houses and apartments. "They were promising the biggest school ever and it never happened."
As a rooster crowed from a house next to the park, an upbeat salsa tune emanated from a window across the street. Someone passed around a bowl of fruit. Someone else distributed a letter written by Kathy Morales, a leader of the Temple-Beaudry neighborhood association. She wrote that she remembered her elementary school classmates leaving the area "because their homes were being torn down."
"I lost my friends, I lost my classmates and I lost my neighbors due to this new project that never came around," Ms. Morales's letter said. "Our community longed to have this empty lot vacated and constructed as soon as possible."
Alba Mendez, 18, said she always wondered when they were going to finish the new school. In the meantime, she got tired of spending two hours on a bus from her home in Temple-Beaudry to Chatsworth, in the western San Fernando Valley, and another two hours back, every day for four years.
"You couldn't do after-school activities, which count toward your grades, because you had to take the bus home," Ms. Mendez said. "Most students would do their homework on the bus. We were always exhausted."