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The ABCs of Holding Up a New School

March 23, 1997|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at Pepperdine's Institute for Public Policy

The fate of a badly needed new high school for the city's poorest and densest neighborhood hinges on the outcome of an intense union campaign against the developer of the proposed 35-acre Belmont Learning Center in the Temple-Beaudry area, just west of downtown Los Angeles.

But this story involves more than the usual provincial agendas and "NIMBYism" that have held up countless other local construction projects. Rather, the two institutions most often viewed as crucial to boosting poor and working-class Latinos up the economic ladder have squared off in the dispute.

On one side is an 8,000-member, 75%-Latino union, the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union Local 11, and its politically savvy leader. On the other is the Los Angeles Unified School District, which first applied for state funds to build the new high school in 1985. Several Latino elected officials have weighed in on the side of the union, in part because organized labor is the single most effective political interest group within Latino-dominant districts. Organized labor, which, ironically, represents only 15.4% of L.A. County's Latino workers, compared with 22.6% of non-Latinos, considers Latino elected officials among their most reliable supporters.

Caught in the middle are the area's 37,000 mostly Latino students who already must contend with considerable socioeconomic burdens outside of school. The existing Belmont High School, which currently serves 5,000 students, is California's second-largest high school and has been overcrowded since the early 1980s. Among other things, a new high school would allow the 660 students from Belmont High and Virgil Middle School districts who are currently bused to the San Fernando Valley to stay close to home. The old high school, according to plans, would become a middle school.

The Los Angeles Board of Education's final vote on the project has been delayed until at least next month amid charges ranging from mismanagement and corruption to political blackmail and racketeering.

At the heart of the dispute is Local 11's opposition to the school board's selection of Temple-Beaudry Partners, a team headed by Kajima International, Inc., as the project's developer. Kajima owns a controlling interest in the New Otani Hotel and Garden in Little Tokyo, the target of a four-year campaign by Local 11 to organize the hotel's 250 workers.

Local 11, as well as United Teachers Los Angeles, had urged the board not to select Kajima to build the school. The unions cited Kajima's war crimes during World War II and more recent allegations of improprieties, including a potential conflict of interest involving the high-school project. While acknowledging Kajima's history and conceding some of the charges, the board voted, in September 1995, to enter into exclusive negotiations with Kajima. In August 1996, the board voted 6-0, with one abstention, to enter into the last phase of negotiations with Kajima and spend $4 million to continue planning the project.

Since the initial selection of the developer in 1995, Local 11 has adopted other arguments to drive home its opposition to Kajima. Because the school district cannot terminate its negotiations with Kajima as a tactic to force the developer to address its labor practices at the New Otani without engaging in an illegal secondary boycott, Local 11 has sought to prove the project's financial inviability. In addition to a new school, plans call for retail businesses, housing and recreation facilities on the site.

In another offensive, Local 11 has waged a behind-the-scenes campaign to stir up opposition to the Belmont project in the media. Much of the "bad press" appeared a week before the school board was scheduled to take a final vote on Feb. 24. In late January, the union held a news conference, at which Local 11 representatives hinted of "possible corruption" connected with the development, and state Sen. Richard C. Polanco, a longtime critic of both the project and the site, called for an independent investigation of the whole matter. He cited changes in the development's plans and mistakes in the district's developer-selection process that could have tipped the scales toward Kajima.

Polanco, in whose senatorial district the school would be located, wants the new high school built on the site of the now shuttered Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, which is owned by a firm headed by New York real-estate developer Donald Trump. Besides enjoying close ties to Local 11 and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Polanco has received both political and campaign support from Trump-Wilshire Associates. The district's failed negotiations with Trump over a purchase price ended in still-unresolved litigation.

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