With a new lawsuit pending and concerns snowballing inside and outside the school district, the Los Angeles Board of Education on Monday delayed a commitment to spend up to $98 million on a replacement for Belmont High School.
The postponement brought shouts of protest from neighbors of the project, who are counting on the 3,600-student Belmont Learning Center, planned for the intersection of Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue, to keep their children off school buses.
But those who have long questioned the complex public-private partnership underlying the development said too many details remain murky, even after more than a year of exclusive negotiations with developer Kajima Inc.
The Belmont Learning Center would be the first new full-service high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District in more than a decade--and probably the most expensive high school ever built in California.
"I don't understand why any high school on the planet should cost that kind of money," said board member Julie Korenstein, who has long questioned the financial details of the project. "The brakes have to be put on, that's all there is to it."
During the past year of exclusive negotiations with Kajima, the project has shrunk in scope while growing in costs--adjacent public housing has been cut back, promised retail shops have not materialized and financing has proved too expensive.
The projected costs have risen from an original district estimate of $60 million to a minimum of $88 million including developer fees and seismic work--and as much as $10 million more if housing and retail plans do not come through.
The land was purchased by the district for $61 million.
And now a development group that competed for the right to enter the competition has sued, contending that the district has refused to provide documentation about its resolution of a potential conflict of interest involving the project.
The conflict, which the board agreed to overlook in 1995, was that the law firm that employs one of the district's chief negotiators, David Cartwright, also represents Kajima in other actions.
In the lawsuit, filed Feb. 19 in Los Angeles Superior Court, the firm California Partnerships Inc. maintains that had it known that Cartwright and other attorneys from the firm of O'Melveny & Myers were involved, it would probably have pulled out of the competition.
"If we had known what was going on, what the rules were, we probably would not have attempted to compete," said attorney Charles E. Greenberg, who is representing California Partnerships. "Because the odds may well have been stacked against anyone but the winning bidder."
Insiders say the legal action, which the firm decided to push forward over the weekend, added to the school board's growing discomfort about the controversial project's possible negative impact on the $2.4-billion school repair and construction bond on the April ballot.
The board had been scheduled to vote Monday on a development agreement with a group headed by Kajima, but over the weekend, Supt. Sid Thompson decided to withdraw the item from the school board agenda.
Board member Vicki Castro, a top proponent of the high school project, was near tears as she talked of her frustration about the delay, which she speculated would last until after the bond vote.
"Everything is being pitted against the bond," Castro said. "They're worried about whatever possible controversy that they think might scare away some voters."
But others say there is a valid link between the success of the bond and the handling of the Belmont project. A bond oversight committee has been formed to allay public concerns about the district's capacity for spending the bond money well and equitably.
Yet, critics maintain that in the case of the Belmont project, the school board has routinely ignored cautionary advice from an independent review committee it appointed.
The delay "gives the opportunity for the theory of oversight committees in general to become operative," said board member David Tokofsky. "If it doesn't, we will have a credibility problem as a district."
Until now, the main opponents of the project have been a growing list of powerful unions and Latino politicians. Yet most of their criticisms were routinely downplayed by a majority of board members, who have said that the urgency of building another school in the crowded downtown area outweighed the concerns.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez, who represents the Temple-Beaudry area, reversed his longtime support for the development, saying he had "lost confidence in the proposed developer."
The City Council's support is important to the development because the council had tentatively agreed to pay for community recreation enhancements to the school, such as a second swimming pool and lighting of the track.