The National Problem of School Overcrowding is Victimizing Our Children: Whose Lies Do YOU Believe? by Betsy Combier
The politico-educational complex is stuffing children into closet size classrooms, lying about it, and paying the media to support their false claims. The Neighborhood Capital Budget Group takes a look at this issue in their report, "Rebuilding Our Schools Brick By Brick". When was the last time you asked for the specs on your child's school? Betsy Combier
Belmont. The name, to many Californians, means corruption, fraud, or incompetence. We at The E-Accountability Foundation have given the Belmont disaster an award, "F For Fraud". How could much money be spent on a school built on a toxic site? We ask, "how much money was paid under the table, and to whom?"
Throughout America our public schools are not succeeding in teaching our children. There are many reasons, of course, and all the lobbyists, media, members of the legal industry, legislators, and representatives hired to work in any department or office of the politico-educational complex will blame anyone but themselves. Many, if not all, blame the children, the victims of this "pass the buck because I say so" mentality that succeeds because we, the public, buy the false claims made in our national media. Making children the perpetrators of the failure of public school education - rather than the victims - must stop.
New York City is an excellent example of this "I didn't do it" mentality:
Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City public school system, Carmen Farina, Deputy Chancellor, Dennis Walcott, Deputy Mayor, and all the highest level administrators in the Mayor's office and inside the NYCBOE, including General Counsel Michael Best, do not have contracts (Michael Best told this to Betsy Combier on August 3, 2005). All serve at the will of the Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. We asked Mr. Best how the public could hold anyone without a contract - and therefore without employment responsibilities - accountable for anything, and he told us "look at the Chancellor's Regulations, and you will see what they are supposed to be doing, then you can hold them accountable for not doing what is listed there". In other words, if you are trying to hold anyone at the NYCBOE accountable for anything, good luck. In fact, whenever anyone tries to expose what is going on, he/she is punished. This retaliation can stop only if we persevere in our quest to stop the false claims being made not only about our children, but about the system. So we will, at great personal expense.
One issue that is worrying parents throughout America and that is currently being falsely reported by school boards and the media, is school overcrowding. We suggest that if you want a clear picture of what is going on in terms of overcrowding, you go to the nearest big school in the nearest city and ask to take a tour (while classes are in session, of course).
Currently, massive overcrowding of schools and the increasing harassment and termination of good teachers in favor of "dumbing down the curriculum and tests" (see Mathematically Correct) is speeding up the hiring of ineffective and/or simply bad teachers, the policing of our schools, and the suspensions of innocent children. School administrators are being forced by supervisors get rid of kids, and they are using the school suspension process as the mechanism to lower class size. Across America, legislation to lower class size is not happening due to the block set up by the legislators, school boards, and media, who insist that "everything is being taken care of" by the Powers That Be. This is debatable.
The problem of overcrowding is not simple, nor is it solvable by simply lowering class size. There are many political lobbyists who will fight for their interests which are peripheral to class size yet vital to the problem of school overcrowding:
Class Size Matters, Maybe, But Check Before Raising Taxes
Metro schools should first cut nonacademic spending and determine if smaller classes are worth the extra cost
Editorial, The Detroit News, April 27, 2004
Metro Detroit parents and taxpayers should be wary of throwing more money at public schools to reduce class size. The complex issue of student performance can't be fixed with money alone.
Educators still debate whether smaller class sizes are worth the extra cost, especially when budgets are tight.
Some local districts have a lot of budget cutting to do before laying off teachers. Trims should first come in nonacademic areas, such as administration, transportation and recreation.
If times are tough, then all the more reason to stick to the core mission and put the money into instruction first.
By way of promoting millages, some districts threaten larger class sizes.
However, before voters bite on such tactics, they should ask some hard questions about a district's total pattern of spending.
In Southfield, for example, a 2002 Standard & Poor's analysis raised flags:
* Transportation. Expenditures in Southfield were $598 per student and "exceptionally above" the state average of $343. Only 3.4 percent of Michigan's school districts spend more per student on transportation than does Southfield.
* Administration. Spending of $1,286 per student is "well above" the state average of $956, though the district is credited with holding the line as others went up.
* Operations and maintenance. Spending of $1,307 per student was "exceptionally above" the state average of $775.
Before pouring more money into Southfield or raising class size parents might want to look at the current overall budget.
Nationally, some educators question the importance of class size.
"Class size is only one factor in the complex matrix that educators must consider as they determine how best to allocate their resources to improve student achievement," says U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige. "I truly believe we will be making a mistake if we assume that simply reducing class size will solve achievement problems in schools."
Student-teacher ratios have declined in recent years. That is, for every teacher on the payroll there were fewer students. But the number is not synonymous with class size because some teachers in special classes, often mandated by state or federal law, only have a handful of students.
And even when class size is reduced, it might not mean much. California spent $8 billion to reduce its class size average to 20 from 28 students. But after six years of reform, the Golden State found no significant change in test scores.
Transferring knowledge in large class settings is possible, even though developing (or copying) techniques may be a challenge.
Overall, the structure of U.S. public education is stuck in the late 19th century. It's yearly schedule, for example, is geared to accommodate a farming society that no longer exists. Reforms have been, at best, incremental.
The bottom line has two themes. Class size is one of many issues facing public education. But don't assume that higher taxes and smaller classes will automatically improve education.
A brief surfing of the internet brings up the fact that schools mostly populated with minority children are over-subscribed, and school boards and local governments are not doing anything about it, or are deliberately not doing the right thing, as we have seen in the case of Belmont, the LOVE CANAL school.
California is finally doing something about school overcrowding...or are they?
From Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF):
Over a million California schoolchildrenpredominantly from low-income families and communities of colorattend severely overcrowded schools. Lunchrooms, libraries, and an assortment of other spaces are used as classrooms and attempts are made to alleviate overcrowding by such temporary measures as reorganizingeven shorteningschool years, busing children to other neighborhoods, and using portable classrooms. But the fact remains that children who attend overcrowded schools are less able to learn, feel socially inferior and alienated, and are more exposed to health and safety hazards.
Though promising developments in Californiaincluding legislation focused on critically overcrowded schools, voter-approved bond measures for school construction, and landmark educational equity lawsuitshave paved the way toward addressing overcrowding in a meaningful, lasting way, structural barriers continue to undermine effective, equitable funding for new school construction.
Ending School Overcrowding in California: Building Quality Schools for All Children, a joint report from PolicyLink and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), illustrates California's school overcrowding crisis, analyzes the state's New Construction and Critically Overcrowded Schools programs, discusses structural barriers to addressing school overcrowding, and outlines policy recommendations for more equitable distribution of school construction funds.
High school overcrowding moot in Montana Schools
By T.J. GILLES, Billings News
The overcrowding crisis that prompted the School District 2 board's proposal to build a new school already has blown over, trustees were told Monday night. A 13-member panel that has studied school facilities needs has recommended that renovation and refocus not new construction are keys to success.
Last year, two-thirds of the district's voters rejected a levy proposal that would have raised $37 million to build a new high school west of town at 48th Street West and Monad Road. Also attached to the proposal were renovation costs for other high schools and the Career Center.
The 20-Year Facilities Planning Committee said those renovations and improvements still need to be made - at a cost of around $51 million, more than half of that to be spent at 67-year-old Senior High School near downtown.
John Eisen, co-chairman of the study group and a school-design consultant, said "high school enrollment is declining while the population at large is continuing to increase" as people beyond child-rearing age move to Billings.
In other words, Mr. Eisen said, the group's projections show that demographics have "solved all of the problems that the additional high school was proposed to solve."
Indeed, some facilities such as the Career Center on 38th Street West and Central Avenue and the Lincoln Center downtown are underutilized by the school system, he said. The committee recommended increased use of these two buildings and more emphasis on career education rather than the current college-prep emphasis which is of immediate benefit to only about 40 percent of high-school graduates going directly into college.
The committee's executive summary said expanding career education has extreme benefits of training for good jobs available in Billings and the region and "helping lower-income students develop job skills they can use to earn money to pay for higher education."
The Montana State University-Billings College of Technology recently added two-year courses in such areas as plant (electrical or refinery) processing and construction. The executive summary suggested that in those fields and in such areas as paralegal or allied health, students utilizing Career Center programs might be able to get their associate's degrees from the COT in one year instead of two and enter the better-paying job market earlier.
Using the downtown Lincoln Center (which now has an entire floor of empty classrooms) might help link students to careers in the nearby medical corridor, legal system, MSU-Billings' main and satellite campuses and the downtown arts community, the report suggested.
"Where a new high school might be located is really up in the air at this point," Mr. Eisen said. "At this point in time, we don't think a new high school is needed at all," and probably needn't even be considered until about 2020. Within three or four years, the committee's report said, the city's three public high schools will have a combined enrollment decrease of around 400 students, with Billings West experiencing the heaviest decline.
As a temporary response to overcrowding, freshmen at both Senior and West spent half-days off the main campus at smaller-sized "freshman academy" classes at Lincoln and the Career Center. The report endorsed the concept of these smaller, transitional classroom settings and suggested they be incorporated into sites of existing schools as time goes on.
For a long list of reasons, the school board's proposed school on a 40-acre plot outside of the city limits was a bad idea, the report said, and the district might considering selling that land and resist the temptation to build.
Committee member Matt Brosovich told a packed house of more than 100 people Monday night that the location is wrong for short-term or long-term school needs and goes against the current of city and county planning and economic development plans.
"The fastest way to create urban sprawl is build a school outside the city limits," Mr. Brosovich said. As unbridled development is unleashed, he added, taxpayers end up paying for catch-up infrastructure such as sewers and traffic.
"This group has to realize how important it is to work with city-county development authorities," he said. One of the group's stronger recommendations was that a board member or district official attend each meeting involving development and planning. In addition to not flouting years of planning and preparation as the 48th Street West location might have school officials will remain abreast of locations and plans of new subdivisions, apartment complexes and industries.
The committee noted that school facilities planning "has historically been an intermittent and problem-driven process" and would be improved by becoming an ongoing meeting at least twice a year.
The executive summary and full report are available from the Billings Public Schools website or by contacting the district at 247-3781.
Email response to this information:
by Taxpayer at 2005/07/16 12:49:10 GMT-6
Did I read that correctly? Our august Schoool Board tried to raise 37 million dollars last year to build a high school that isnt needed?
High School Overcrowding
KULR-8, Montana, Keagan Harsha
USA - JULY 25, BILLINGS - School board trustees will discuss what to do about overcrowding at Billings Public High Schools during their meeting Monday evening.The district has a surplus of about 800 students. Ninth grade academies have helped relieve some of the overcrowding... But trustees say the academies weren't intended to be long term solutions to the problem. Proposed solutions to the overcrowding problem include an addition to the career center, building onto the current high schools, or building a new school or two smaller schools.
Schools Overcrowding - Chicago
Overcrowding in the Chicago Public Schools remains a large problem. Overcrowded classrooms lead to huge class sizes and poor conditions for learning. In Chicago, while we have built 15 new schools and 30 additions since 1997, it is clear that CPS has not been able to keep up with many of our booming neighborhoods leading to overcrowded schools. In fact, 31% of our elementary schools are overcrowded, and 22% of our high schools are overcrowded. This means that approximately 161,419 Chicago students are attending overcrowded schools (37% of the total student body)! The Chicago Public Schools have already spent over $2.4 billion for school construction and repairs, but despite these record accomplishments, overcrowding remains a problem at both the high school and elementary school levels.
The Chicago Public Schools determines whether a school is overcrowded by dividing the number of students in a school (the enrollment) by the number of students that school can hold (the design capacity). An elementary school is considered overcrowded if its enrollment is 80 percent or more of the design capacity.
Elementary School Overcrowding
During the 2001-2002 school year, 152 Chicago elementary schools were overcrowded (31%). In other words 128,198 elementary school students had to learn in overcrowded schools. Of these 152 overcrowded schools, 54 elementary schools were severely overcrowded, meaning that they operated at more than 100% of their design capacity, and 98 were overcrowded. See a list of overcrowded elementary schools.
More elementary schools are overcrowded than ever before in Chicago. After elementary school enrollment has declined for four years since the 1996-97 school year (when 155 elementary schools were overcrowded), overcrowding is now soaring to record levels. Despite investments in more classroom space, CPS is not keeping up with rising enrollment. In fact, new additions are filling up almost as soon as they open their doors. Of the 45 new schools or additions that have been built since 1997, 27% (12 schools) are already overcrowded again.
Many of the overcrowding trends are geographical. 56 overcrowded elementary schools are on the City's Southwest side, 32 on the Northwest side, and 18 on the South side, the same regions where high school overcrowding is most prevalent. In fact, the Southwest side has 3 times as many overcrowded buildings as the South side.
10 Most Overcrowded Elementary Schools School % Overcrowded Geographic Region
Lenart Center 177% Southwest
Twain 167% Southwest
Shields 158% Southwest
Marsh 147% Far South
Reilly 146% Northwest
Hurley 146% Southwest
Field 139% North
Seward 136% Southwest
Peck 136% Southwest
Avondale 136% Northwest
High School Overcrowding
During the 2001-2002 school year, 19 Chicago high schools were overcrowded (22%). This means that 33,221 high school students had to learn in overcrowded schools. After declining steadily since 1996, high school enrollments are beginning to rise again. In the past, NCBG suspected that enrollments were dropping due to factors that influence high school enrollments from year to year (such as lower birthrates, dropouts, people moving out of the City or switching to private schools, etc.). Judging by the recent increase in overcrowding, it appears those suspicions were true. If new construction was decreasing overcrowding, overcrowding should be even lower. However, the number of overcrowded high schools has inched up 4% from the 2000-2001 school year, and that's after building 3 new high schools, and completing 2 additions since 1996. See a list of overcrowded high schools
Many of the overcrowding trends are geographical. 8overcrowded high schools are on the City's Southwest side and 6 on the Northwest Side, the same regions where elementary overcrowding is most prevalent. The Southwest side has 8 times as many overcrowded high schools than the West, South, and Far South sides. Although CPS offers schools of choice and specialty programs, many high schools continue to cater to neighborhood schools. Since neighborhood trends and demographics often influence the school population, NCBG encourages CPS to be better planners so that, for example, funding will be available to build enough new schools to relieve the overcrowding in these neighborhoods.
10 Most Overcrowded High Schools School % Overcrowded Geographic Region
Kelly HS 174% Southwest
Mather HS 131% North
Foreman HS 122% Northwest
Bogan Tech HS 122% Southwest
Kelvyn Park HS 121% Northwest
Gage Park HS 118% Southwest
Steinmetz HS 118% Northwest
Amundsen HS 117% North
Kennedy HS 117% Southwest
Roosevelt HS 110% Northwest
Read NCBG's 1999 Report, Rebuilding Our Schools Brick By Brick.
Is Your School Overcrowded?
Parents, teachers, and community members need and have a right to know whether their school is overcrowded, and, if so, how overcrowded it is. (The terminology can be confusing. An annex is a freestanding building containing fewer than 12 classrooms. An addition is a connected building that generally contains more than 12 rooms. A modular unit is a temporary building to provide a short-term fix to overcrowding.) CPS has stopped building new annexes.
You can determine if your child's school is overcrowded by asking your principal, Local School Council member, or CPS regional office for the "design capacity" of your school building (the number of students that the building was meant to hold) and the current enrollment. Then, divide the enrollment by the design capacity. For example, if your school's enrollment is 900 students, and the design capacity is 1000, your school is operating at 90 percent of its design capacity. Generally, CPS considers a school to be overcrowded if it is operating at 80 percent or more of its intended design.
Overcrowded Chicago elementary schools
Overcrowded Chicago high schools
The school district's space crunch is much worse than you know. And no one has a plan that will fix it.
by Howard Blume
FORGET MATH AND READING PROGRAMS. Forget teacher accountability. Forget social promotion. The Los Angeles Unified School District faces a more basic looming catastrophe: space. The school system is about to put out a no-vacancy sign, with thousands of children waiting at the door. And the space race is all but lost.
Over the next 10 years, the already overcrowded school district is expected to grow from 711,000 students to well over 800,000. That increase will require L.A. Unified to build from scratch the equivalent of a school district larger than Long Beach Unified, which itself is the state's third largest.
So, how many schools does LAUSD currently have under construction? None.
How many new school projects are likely to receive state funding in the next year? One, a small primary center.
And how many completed applications has the district filed requesting state funding? One, for the same primary center.
As for the district's most acute need -- new high schools -- how many potential high school sites has the school system acquired over the past 30 years? The answer to this question used to be two. But the school system recently canceled both those projects -- the Belmont Learning Complex and a proposed high school in South Gate -- after spending some $250 million. So again the answer is zero.
When it comes to building schools, L.A. Unified has suffered from unending missteps, bad luck, state-funding inequities and a general paralysis of incomprehensible proportions. For 20 years, the school system has known that this overcrowding was approaching. And the crisis arrived, right on schedule, some 10 years ago. It's gotten steadily worse every year since, and the worst of all is yet to come -- despite the recent arrival of a qualified team of real estate professionals who have labored creatively and shrewdly.
Over the next five years, every high school in the LAUSD will gradually succumb to a multitrack year-round calendar -- which increases a school's capacity by 50 percent, but trashes academic programs. And then, even with a pervasive busing plan, more than 22,000 students will need seats that currently exist nowhere. If the district happens to lower its staggering dropout rate, the challenge to find space increases accordingly. Meanwhile, district officials estimate that five years -- the same five years -- is the minimum time needed to build a high school, presuming that you have somewhere to build one.
Consider this: It has taken Long Beach Unified some 100 years to build its 60 elementary schools, 15 middle schools and seven high schools. Los Angeles will have to do better than that in just 10 years, in a dense urbanscape, where the district must compete with private developers and battle recalcitrant property owners over whatever prime space can be found. If history is any guide, the school district is going to fail. Over the last 25 years, L.A. Unified has built eight small primary centers, about a dozen elementary schools, three specialized magnet schools, one middle school and zero comprehensive high schools.
And there's more bad news. It would take at least $6 billion to get all students off both the buses and the district's educationally perverted year-round schedule. Instead, L.A. will start with $900 million from the local school-bond measure passed in 1997. And while these funds could be matched, dollar for dollar, with state money, nearly all of this state money is likely to go to other school districts. As it stands now, L.A. Unified would get about 1 percent of the rapidly vanishing pot of state school-construction money -- even though the district has 12 percent of the state's enrollment, a third of the state's students on year-round schedules, and one of the highest rates of enrollment growth.
Considerable fault lies with the way the state awards construction funds -- and, in desperation, L.A. Unified and activist organizations have sued over the matter. But then, too, the district's own construction program has been a disaster, both in terms of putting projects together and obtaining state money to pay for them. District efforts have been distinguished by a combination of ill-conceived ideas, or abandoned ones, abetted by school boards that occasionally overreach, but more often capitulated to outside political pressures, at the direct expense of students.
More recently, the facilities division has hardly existed at all, because the school board elected to clean house in the wake of the Belmont Learning Complex fiasco. Assembling the newcomers took months, and they're still learning the territory. It didn't help that new Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller managed to repeat some mistakes of the past, while also authoring some innovative miscues of his own. And this chaos could be repeated; Miller, as well as certain key interim managers, could depart within months during the transition into the administration of Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor who was chosen this week to be the school district's new superintendent.
But it doesn't necessarily matter who is calling the shots. This calamity, which was years in the making, is now larger than L.A. Unified. There is simply no solution to the morass, or at least none that is within the reach of the district alone. If fixing the school system matters -- and every politician claims to champion the cause -- addressing the facilities crisis will require the intense, unremitting participation of every civic leader in town, especially Mayor Richard Riordan and whoever becomes the next mayor.
THE SPACE RACE
IT MAKES FOR GRIM READING, THE STORIES of how the children of Los Angeles suffer from a shortage of classroom space.
Kindergartner Andres Daza goes to school in a ramshackle collection of temporary buildings set down on a South Gate city park. There's no cafeteria, auditorium or computer lab. On rainy days, he gets drenched crossing an open field to get to the portable bathrooms.
At Monte Vista Elementary, near downtown, fourth-grader Frances Rosenberg Jaramillo is in school for a month, then out for a month, back for two months, then off for a month, and so on -- all part of her school's crazy-quilt, multitrack year-round schedule. Her teacher has to pack up and unpack her classroom as often as five times a year, costing valuable instruction time.
Space is so short at Washington Prep High School in South-Central that Shannon Egans can't get the classes she needs to graduate. So she takes courses out of sequence, or during her vacations. Other students are forced to take adult-school classes in the evening.
They all are victims of the school district's coping strategies: About 77,000 students are yoked to a year-round schedule that shortens the academic year for individual students by a month. Some 15,000 students ride the bus against their will, even though district research indicates that these students fare the worst on academic-achievement measures.
In a sworn declaration, Assistant Superintendent Gordon Wohlers conceded that for years L.A. school officials have, in effect, perpetrated a fraud on the children of Los Angeles. Year-round education is not, in fact, a swell way to keep kids learning all year, as district officials originally claimed. Instead, the schedule, as practiced here, has hurt students badly, declared Wohlers.
Besides cheating children of a month of instruction, the schedule robs the school of downtime for maintenance, and of space in which to offer extra help to struggling students. "When we started the program many years ago, we hoped that we could make up with longer class periods for the 17 instructional days a year that children on these calendars lose," Wohlers stated. "It has not worked out that way. The intense calendars make for tired students and tired teachers."
Not only that, he added, but district officials have made only halfhearted attempts to prevent students from dropping out -- because there's no room for these students anyway. The district has elected to "dispense with or weaken retrieval efforts for students [who] drop out of schools or are at high risk of dropping out."
Wohlers' declaration appears in a lawsuit against the state that was filed in March -- by civil rights attorneys, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. The attorneys are nominally representing a group of specific students, families and teachers, but the litigation was prepared in close coordination with the school district itself. Documentation in the suit demonstrates how, for years, L.A. Unified has not received anything close to its fair share of school-construction money. The heart of the problem is that the State Allocation Board, which distributes the funding, operates on a first-come, first-served basis. Eligible projects that clear regulatory hurdles get funded in order of arrival until the money runs out. Consideration for who needs the money the most has not been a fundamental factor.
Therefore, the state's traditional retort to L.A. Unified is: The rules are the same for you as for everyone else. And in fact, right now, LAUSD has only one completed application for funds on file with the state. Without question, the district would have received many millions of dollars if it had only managed to ask for the money in the standard, pro forma way. For this, the school district deserves some of the derision regularly expressed by state officials. But the case is not as simple as that.
It has always taken longer to acquire land in a dense urban area than in a suburban enclave, and now potential locations have to go through an environmental review by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). This process is a direct outgrowth of environmental missteps on L.A. school projects, including the Belmont Learning Complex.
In February, the DTSC kicked back 58 of 60 sites, the vast majority for small primary centers, on the grounds that further environmental analysis was needed.
"We believe these are green, clean sites, and all but two were rejected," said one district staffer, who requested anonymity. "And we're not talking industrial sites, but residential properties or those without a history of industrial use. The DTSC was concerned that there was a chance that someone might have sprayed a garden with insecticide at one point, or dumped oil from a car in the grass, or used lead-based paint on a wall, even though we would take care of that problem anyway during demolition. That's literally the standard that was applied. We are now working under the presumption that all sites, even the smallest, cleanest ones, will need six to nine months to go through this process."
Part of the problem is that the DTSC has never played this sort of role before. Nor does the DTSC have the benefit of clear, consistent state standards for judging risk levels for children. And while all California school systems must now work with the DTSC, urban districts face a particular challenge finding clean sites.
Of course, the answer is not to short-circuit safety reviews. That tack helped get L.A. Unified into this fix in the first place. Environmental activists still complain of district bureaucrats who resist putting safety first. But clearly, no happy medium has been achieved. "The system we have in place now is inexplicable, unworkable and promises to frustrate the best efforts of the leadership of the school district," said David Abel, a member of the advisory committee that oversees the spending of local school bonds passed by voters as Proposition BB.
The clock is ticking. Barring the success of the litigation, or a reprieve by state lawmakers, all of the available state-bond funds will be spoken for in the next six months or so. But it needn't have come to this. ã
A CRISIS FORETOLD
THE SCHOOL DISTRICT GETS A RELIABLE estimate of its coming enrollment by applying a standard formula to the number of local live births. So where are the schools that officials knew would be needed? Or for that matter, where are the schools that were supposed to accommodate the 86,000 additional students who swelled classrooms between 1989 and 1999?
Frequently, school projects were studied, proposed, opposed and allowed to wither on the vine. Standard practice at the school district was to announce a site, lobby for community support after the fact, then absorb a public beating for being the big-foot government agency going after people's homes, businesses and properties. In the end, the school district would usually back down in the face of public and legal pressure, resulting in neither a school nor good community relations.
By nature, school districts are politically squeamish, plodding institutions. And school-board members, who are elected by area, have been loath to oppose activists who rise within their districts. In the backwater of a school-board election, one or two influential malcontents can make a difference.
"When there is a significant political player in town opposing a school project, members of the Board of Education ultimately do not sustain opposition to those people -- they fold," said one former district administrator, who believes the new school board made scapegoats of district staff in the wake of Belmont and other misfortunes. The real culprit, said this administrator, has been a lack of political will on the part of the school board. The one time the board held firm, he added, was on the school proposed long ago for the site of the Ambassador Hotel, "and that's because the major competing developer, Donald Trump, had no political base in this town."
The duel against Trump -- and a consortium of fellow investors -- was a prime example of how the district squandered an inordinate amount of time and money and still failed to build a school, although, incredibly, the game is not over yet. The Ambassador saga was originally portrayed as right triumphing over capitalist might. Trump wanted to build the world's tallest building. L.A. Unified -- led by thenschool-board member Jackie Goldberg -- wanted to build a badly needed school.
The school district won the political and legal battle to condemn the property, but then abandoned the cause when the recession lowered property values, opening up a different, faster and seemingly cheaper opportunity in the Belmont area.
Further legal skirmishes have effectively tied up the Ambassador site for use by anybody for more than 10 years. The district could not close out a deal even when the recession-struck investors wanted to sell out. Now that the school district is hot for the site again, the recession is over. Trump surrendered most of his stake in 1998, but the remaining beleaguered investors are seeking to salvage some financial gain. City Councilman Nate Holden, who represents the area, opposes any sort of high school in the heart of the Wilshire commercial district. And on it goes.
In the 1980s, even as the Ambassador drama was playing out, the struggle to build something -- anything -- led district officials to make a conscious decision to avoid using government condemnation powers to take residential property. After all, the school board did not wish to punish the same families for whom they were seeking to build schools. Nor could they stomach the political heat.
"School-board members didn't want to take homes," recalls another former district administrator. "They would tell us, 'Why can't you just find commercial property where you can buy off merchants?' I am told this directive was never reflected in a written policy, but it was certainly the sentiment."
Yet prime commercial properties such as the Ambassador have been vigorously contested. District staffers turned their attention to less desirable land, especially contaminated industrial parcels. By taking this land, the district would get its schools, and the surrounding community would benefit from the cleanup of an eyesore. Thus Jefferson Middle School was erected on the location of a furniture factory. And city officials in South Gate steered school-district attention to the city's old industrial quarter, while setting aside the cleaner site of a shuttered General Motors plant for the future development of a shiny, new industrial park. Meanwhile, in downtown L.A., the infamous Belmont project was begun as a modest middle school atop an orphaned oil field, one that private developers did not covet.
Most of the time, the path of least resistance was to build no school at all. Instead, officials changed school calendars to year-round, stuck students on buses and chopped up playgrounds by slapping down portables. The resulting mega-campuses -- elementary schools with 2,000 students -- were no one's idea of a good setting for education, but they were politically acceptable. Of course, such stratagems drove away middle-class families -- they could afford to move, or use private schools -- but then, L.A. Unified had little space for these students anyway.
BELMONT OR BUST
IT'S HARD TO BUILD ANYTHING WITHOUT money, and a shortage of state construction funding has persistently plagued L.A. Unified over the past 30 years. During some periods, the well was dry; no districts were getting appropriations. At other times, L.A. was simply unable to compete. To break this logjam of failure, thenSuperintendent Bill Anton asked his longtime friend and colleague Dom Shambra to make something happen.
Shambra's prime mission was to organize projects that could generate income and thus offset the shortage of state funds. Early on, his team rhapsodized about developing a 40-story high-rise, as well as a commercial strip, on the Wilshire Boulevard frontage of the Ambassador site. But when that project stalled, Shambra switched his sights to what would become the Belmont Learning Complex.
The school was marketed as the district's flagship high school, a flashy symbol that poor minority children deserved the best and would get it. All of which masked a less glamorous subtext, that the district was assembling a serviceable big box to cram in as many students as possible, because so many other efforts to house students had failed. In this instance, Shambra and the school board overreached, trying too hard to include a shopping center and underestimating the impact of environmental issues and project opponents.
Some $200 million later, the learning complex stands half-finished on the western edge of downtown, the nation's most expensive high school project and one that, it appears now, will never open. Newcomers to the school board tilted the balance against Belmont and in January, the school board voted to abandon the Belmont complex altogether. Many factors undid the project, but environmental issues commonly get the blame: The school sits on a shallow oil field that will perpetually generate small amounts of explosive methane and toxic hydrogen sulfide.
The cancellation of Belmont came on the heels of a similar decision in South Gate. That latter site, in the view of COO Howard Miller, would simply cost too much and take too long to clean up. Even though no construction had started at South Gate, the district had already invested $40 million and some 15 years in the project.
Belmont and South Gate "were cornerstone locations," noted a former top district official who asked not to be identified. "They were incredibly important to the strategic initiative of finding seats for students in two of our most crowded areas. They were also important from a standpoint of momentum."
Indeed, killing Belmont and South Gate effectively ended the only two ongoing projects for comprehensive secondary schools that district officials have put together over the past 30 years. And this in a school district that needs nine new high schools right about now.
But the Belmont debacle had a more pervasive impact. Politically, it contributed to last year's defeat of three school-board members, the replacement of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, and the creation of an internal auditor's office with broad investigative authority. And when this auditor, Don Mullinax, blamed a panoply of administrators for what had gone wrong, the school board reacted by getting rid of nearly the entire leadership of the facilities division, but failed to act on the imperative to replace them quickly. By this time, a number of key players, including Shambra, had already departed on their own. Meanwhile, Miller, who was hired last fall to be a facilities czar, rose all the way to chief operating officer for the whole school district -- and the facilities division languished without hands-on leadership for months as a result of his divided attention.
THE NEW SCHOOL-BOARD MAJORITY TOOK charge nearly a year ago, bringing with it an impatience for change that culminated in last winter's ouster of Superintendent Zacarias and the elevation of Miller, an outside real estate attorney who served on the school board from 1976 to 1979. But this appetite for action has not solved the facilities crisis, nor made any tide-turning headway to date. It hasn't helped that Miller, who reinvented himself as COO, stumbled out of the gate.
Miller's first solution was widely proclaimed as brilliant, and embraced with much fanfare, when it was unveiled last fall. He envisioned building scores of primary centers for the youngest students, because such schools take up less space, and are less costly and complex to build. Elementary schools could then be re-configured to serve grades four through eight; middle schools could become small high schools.
Yet, in the six months since Miller proposed his plan, nothing has moved on this front. Last week, perplexed school-board member Valerie Fields asked Miller, at a public meeting, what had become of the conversion plan. Miller smiled ruefully: "There's not a single community that we consulted on that -- and I don't want to use the wrong word here -- that was not violently opposed to that . . . There was no split opinion."
Another false start was Miller's all-out push to file state funding applications. They hit a red light at the DTSC, which wanted further, protracted environmental review. In the words of one top district administrator, "A lot of productive work got lost in the scramble to produce applications for state bond money, which we thought we could get into the food chain by January. That was when we thought we could complete the DTSC process in six months. A lot of energy was wasted trying to jump through hoops for this deadline," said the administrator, who asked not to be named.
In addition, the statewide program to reduce class sizes in the early grades has further divided the focus of ã district planners. In effect, the district has found itself adding classrooms without adding to its student capacity. And this project has not gone smoothly either. State officials are threatening to take millions of dollars from L.A. Unified unless it moves faster on class-size reduction.
While Miller's deputies admire his drive and braininess, they acknowledge that he doesn't brief them on exactly what he's up to, even on projects that fall under their jurisdiction. Sometimes this style is merely an inconvenience, but it has also spawned substantial mistrust between Miller and the Proposition BB oversight committee, two of whose leaders, Steve Soboroff and David Abel, accused Miller of stonewalling them on information about key district initiatives and repeating the errors of past administrations. Ironically, it was Soboroff and Abel who had prodded the school board to place Miller in charge of facilities in the first place.
Last month, when Abel hosted a dinner and workshop at his home for pivotal real estate and business honchos both inside and outside the district, Miller was not even invited. Miller, in turn, failed to sanction a groundbreaking conclave last week that Abel organized to break the stalemate over the Ambassador site. Abel claims that district employees were initially banned from the event. Ultimately, one was dispatched but not allowed to participate. No one showed either from Miller's office or the facilities division. School-board member Caprice Young, hemmed in by meetings over picking a new superintendent, attended the five-hour gathering for about 30 minutes.
In an interview, Miller said that district lawyers advised staff not to participate. "Most of the people on that panel are people we are in litigation with, counsel for those people or people who have threatened litigation on this, such as the Los Angeles Conservancy. It sounded like good counsel to me."
The personal conflict is especially relevant because Abel also presides over New Schools Better Neighborhoods, a recently established coalition that is seeking to build community support for new schools. After observing one failure after another, Abel concluded that the school district must involve communities from the start in the site-selection and school-construction processes -- both to benefit from the community's input and to keep residents and business people working with the district rather than against it.
Miller has said he generally supports Abel's push for community involvement, but insisted that he also has to rely on his own judgment about what processes will build the most schools the fastest. In an interview last week, he emphasized that he has tried to follow closely the spirit of what Abel advocates. "We've hired a full-time community-outreach director," he said, "and engaged half a dozen community-outreach firms. We're committed to community outreach as part of this process."
After a false start, Miller's staff adopted the Abel approach in South Gate, with a promising result. Community leaders helped to select an alternative high school site, the old General Motors plant, and then worked to win broad support for the plan.
"South Gate is a perfect example of taking the time to do it right," said Kathi Littman, the district's director of new construction. "The entire community outreach took less than eight weeks. We have other properties that we've spent five months on and, because of community opposition, we haven't gotten off the ground."
To date, no one has successfully addressed the Belmont debacle. Most of the proposed alternatives to the learning complex quickly fell by the wayside. "They're rehashing stuff that's been looked at before," commented one district administrator, who asked not to be named. "They're chasing down alleys we looked at five, 10, 12 years ago."
For all its drawbacks, the Belmont complex may be a necessary quick fix. In fact, most current and former facilities managers agree, off the record at least, that it's difficult, if not impossible, to foresee any new high school project in the Belmont area that would deliver a school nearly as soon as finishing the abandoned learning complex. Although reputable critics insist that Belmont can never be made safe, that is not the general opinion of top DTSC officials, the same people who have been castigated by district officials as obstructionist, slow-moving and overly cautious in their safety reviews of other sites. A thorough review could have been completed months ago if the school district had set about the task in earnest, according to Hamid Saebfar, a senior DTSC administrator. He added that the safety review ground to a near halt months before the school board actually voted in January to cancel the project.
The school board is now under increased pressure to complete the safety study, because county Supervisor Gloria Molina and state Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa have pledged funds to pay for it. And in a televised interview aired over the weekend, Governor Gray Davis added his voice to the chorus, noting that the state's scientists were optimistic about the chances for making Belmont safe enough to open as a school.
In fact, the district would stand a fighting chance of getting state dollars to complete Belmont if it reapplied for funding. The district allowed its previous request for Belmont funding to lapse in January 1999.
"If that money was left on the table," commented one senior district official, "it's because a staff person was afraid of being seen as pro-Belmont. No one wanted to be associated with it in any way. It would have been a career risk."
Belmont aside, new-construction director Littman and Robert Buxbaum, the interim chief facilities executive, can point to any number of sensible, encouraging initiatives they're pursuing. Yet the school district is simply not on track to build the seats it needs. There is neither money nor time enough. As now engaged, the battle has already been lost. Which is where Mayor Richard Riordan comes in.
THE RIORDAN FACTOR
THE WAGS AT CITY HALL AND THE SCHOOL district once scoffed when Riordan talked of being the city's education mayor. Didn't he understand that he could never have any direct jurisdiction over L.A. Unified, because the school-district boundaries extend beyond the city of Los Angeles? Wasn't there enough to keep him occupied at City Hall? Some school-board members suggested that he mind his own business.
None of that discouraged Riordan, a longtime education philanthropist who was determined to make his mark on schools from the Mayor's Office. Behind the scenes, Riordan encouraged top management consultants to train district officials free of charge. Dissatisfied with peripheral efforts, Riordan ultimately mounted a successful charge against the incumbent school-board majority, triggering the nation's most expensive school-board elections ever. On the facilities side, he helped organize the primary-center task force, with the goal of building 15 to 20 schools in two years.
But even the task force got bogged down by the district bureaucracy and neighborhood opposition. Riordan education aide Veronica Davey concedes that the task force fell far short of its goal, building just four schools. Still, "That's 500 kindergarten through second-graders who would otherwise be on a bus for more than an hour," said Davey.
Riordan also has blessed certain district attempts to acquire land, including the Metromedia site for a new secondary school in Hollywood. But this level of support has not been consistently sustained. District staffers claim that the Mayor's Office has distanced itself from, or even discouraged, the district's pursuit of some sites, which are typically owned by influential business people or major corporations.
"Primary centers are kind of easy," noted one veteran district real estate manager. "Those are quick hits. There's not a lot of opposition in most cases. You get easy victories, press conferences and grand-opening dedications. A middle school or a high school is always somebody's business or home, or on a contaminated site that somebody's walked away from. I haven't seen a willingness from the mayor or other politicians to get out in front of that."
David Abel agreed that the mayor could do more: "Richard Riordan has changed the Board of Education, and given focus and attention to the school district. But in developing an institutional solution to problems, he's not doing any better a job on this than he did at the MTA or at the airport. You don't have any clear, consistent direction from Riordan's office as to how we're supposed to find these school sites, [or] on how to bring the parties together. I don't see this kind of leadership. I don't see an approach that people can follow."
Abel, in fact, suggests an approach that could make a tremendous difference. He notes that combining all the public funds currently available through school, park and library bonds would create a civic-infrastructure pool of $4 billion to $5 billion. This entire fund could be used to build schools if such projects also included community libraries, public parks or river walks. The whole city, not just the schools, would benefit from this sort of coordinated planning.
The money for schools, libraries and parks, said Abel, "is real. The voters of L.A. and the state have come through. But the city and school district have not kept faith with the voters. Our mayor has certainly proved he can focus on raising money behind the scenes for individuals and campaigns, but we are without leadership, a vision and strategy for leveraged investment of these scarce funds."
Up to now, Riordan has been most effective working out of public view, but seizing this opportunity would require a very public appeal, and then an open, fast-paced process. It would demand all the leadership that Riordan could muster, as well as the concerted participation of civic and elected leaders across the county. For their part, Miller and other district officials would have to surrender once and for all a go-it-alone, insular style that often has the district working at odds with other agencies rather than in concert with them.
One obvious attribute of new Superintendent Romer is his political adroitness in circles well outside of the school district. Besides having served as governor of Colorado, Romer chaired the Democratic National Committee until accepting the L.A. schools position this week. His role included helping to organize this August's presidential-nomination convention in Los Angeles. But that experience is merely a starting point for what he'll deal with at L.A. Unified.
In short, Romer has to redirect the school district from its tried and failed path, evident at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School and so many other places. For three years, principal Jim Messrah has stared dumbfounded at an empty lot that was supposed to house a new classroom building. In this instance, the community wants the project, and the school district bought the land from a willing seller several years ago. The parcel is conveniently located adjacent to the existing school.
"Everything was approved, and yet the land sits vacant," said Messrah. "One week I'm told it was underfunded. The next that the guidelines have changed because we waited so long. Now it needs another environmental study. Pretty soon you're in a fog, and you don't know truth from fiction.
"I watch and wonder at the cathedral going up downtown. Everything goes up quickly except schools. The thing I keep hearing is that we're going to build 150 new schools -- we can't build a building. Our kids deserve better."
JUNK THE YEAR-ROUND SCHEDULE, AND THE length of each student's school year increases by a month. Eliminate long bus rides, and parents would start the schooling of as many as 2,500 children in kindergarten rather than first grade. That would provide an extra year of academics to those children at a vital stage in their development. Neighborhood schools also allow parents to become involved in their kid's education. How much of a difference does that make?
As it stands, some high school students will be "on track" for homecoming or baseball season. Some will not. Some college-bound students will take advantage of summer enrichment programs. Others won't, because of the year-round schedule. And advanced-placement classes will either be packed onto one track -- for the preordained "smart" students (and God forbid if you're a late bloomer) -- or be scattered among the different tracks, limiting access to some courses. And once again, the school district will drive away middle-class families whose buy-in and participation are sorely needed.
As for teachers, how much would it enhance their effectiveness to have a permanent classroom rather than having to pack up and unpack several times a year? The constant moving discourages teachers from assembling classroom libraries and other learning materials that are difficult to store or transport. It also contributes to burnout.
For Mayor Riordan, marshaling the full force of the city and its civic elite to solve the classroom shortage would be a legacy that not even Rampart could tarnish. The question is: Do Riordan, Romer and the city have the wit and will to pull it off?
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