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Sam Hall Kaplan

Playing Hardball on School Sites

August 23, 1987

Continuing to simmer in the summer heat is the controversy involving the Los Angeles Unified School District's plans to expand 42 schools in mostly inner-city neighborhoods.

Faced with a projected estimated increase in enrollment from a present 600,000 to 667,000 in 1991, the district "fast tracked" its planning and design program in order to be at the head of the line in Sacramento to get a commitment from the state of several hundred million dollars in school construction funds.

Under the plans put forward by the district, about 2,200 homes are to be condemned and an estimated 6,000 persons relocated.

While the district believed it was acting in the best interest of the city, many in the affected communities thought the plans a considerable disruption.

The result is that the district's train, riding the hard rails of eminent domain and filled with school administrators and consultant architects embracing completed plans, left the station without the fond farewells of some of the affected communities.

By fast tracking, the district might have gained some time in its race to build schools, but at the cost of considerable good will.

In some areas a garden variety of community groups including homeowners, preservationists and parent associations have complained of the arbitrary selection of sites and the failure of the district to explore more imaginative designs and other alternatives to minimize the dislocation.

The district has replied in meetings and letters that its site selection process at present is very much constrained by a raft of state laws dictating, among other things, the height and size of schools and the amount of play space.

There also have been strong complaints by community groups that district representatives have not properly involved local residents in the planning process, or when they did so under political pressure, ignored suggestions of alternatives.

"The staff has done a bad job" exploring alternatives and involving affected neighborhoods, declared C. Douglas Brown, administrator of the district's building division, at a recent meeting to review the controversy.

But Brown and district planning official Sara Coughlin added that the district had been under the pressure of a state imposed time frame to submit sites and plans to obtain construction funds.

This explains the action, but in my opinion, does not excuse it.

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The district's planning process did open up a little a few months ago when state legislators David Roberti and Mike Roos began to make inquiries. Both legislators, in whose districts some of the more controversial sites are located, wield considerable influence in the allocation of state funds.

So it was understandable that the Board of Education, which oversees the district, complied when the legislators asked that the processing on 12 of the 42 sites be stopped until a bill is passed giving the district more flexibility in the siting and design of the proposed additions and new schools. It is no coincidence that the projects were identified in a district memo under the heading of the "Roberti list."

When I wrote in a recent column that the sites were "spared," the district was quick to correct me in a letter published in this section last Sunday. It noted that the 12 additions and new schools were "postponed," not "spared," and, in time, will be pursued, on either the present sites, albeit reduced to save homes, or on nearby alternative sites.

It should be noted that the 12 sites, as originally identified by the board, involve 1,096 homes and an estimated 3,000 persons--about half of the relocation load of the board's proposed 42 sites.

The district also took issue with my noting that just a few years ago the board had closed 22 schools. It said those schools were many miles from the overcrowded neighborhoods and could not be used as a resource. I still feel that projecting school enrollments is an imprecise science in a burgeoning city like Los Angeles and those schools represent a potential resource not to be overlooked.

Answering my question of why homes must be taken for school parking, the district in its letter stated that the city requires the district to provide off-street parking for teachers at the rate of one space per classroom.

Yes, but that does not mean the city would not waive the requirement or close streets during school hours or allow angled parking.

I also have asked in recent columns why the remaining 30 sites were still being pursued, even after the district had indicated in creating the "Roberti list" that much more site-sensitive designs saving homes and serving the community were possible. And wasn't the district required by law to properly involve the targeted communities?

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