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L.A. School Board Approves Belmont Project

Education: Trustees leave open the question of whether to use bond funds to build learning center.

April 22, 1997|AMY PYLE and PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Saying further delays would be "unconscionable," Los Angeles school board President Jeff Horton led the drive Monday to approve the Belmont Learning Center, but the board left in limbo a decision about how to pay for the $87-million high school.

The vote to contract with Kajima International to build the campus west of downtown went forward after two unions suing the district over the plan failed to gain a temporary restraining order earlier in the day that would have blocked a vote.

The Los Angeles Unified School District had faced a torrent of criticism during the past week over a proposal to help build the controversial school with proceeds from Proposition BB, the recently passed $2.4-billion school repair and construction bond.

"I'm very sorry about the misunderstanding that has arisen," Horton said. "But this is an excellent project."

The seven-member board was far from united in those sentiments, splitting in a 4-3 vote, and then only after bickering for more than an hour. Its decision was preceded by a contentious two-hour public hearing.

Dissenting board members George Kiriyama, Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky objected to approving the campus without its funding in place, particularly when projected costs of the school have steadily risen from an original district estimate of $60 million.

"We just signed a blank-check contract," Tokofsky said after the vote.

Options for financing if bond money is not used include selling certificates of participation, which would strip at least $8 million out of the district's budget annually for the next 20 years. District planning director Dominic Shambra said he is counting on state matching funds to finance half of the school, although under sharp questioning from board members he acknowledged that that money is not a sure thing.

Critics of the proposed use of bond money, a plan announced at last week's board meeting, said they voted for the measure because it promised $600 million in overdue repairs.

But at Monday's board meeting, neighbors of the future Belmont Learning Center, to be built on district-owned property near Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue, said they had walked precincts and cast their votes on behalf of the bond measure because it set $900 million aside for new school construction.

"When we campaigned for [Proposition] BB, we were told the money also applied to construction of the Belmont school," said Gloria Soto, head of the Belmont High School advisory council, who pointed out that more than 3,000 children are bused out of the area.

Some went further, considering it a personal and racist attack that much of the outrage against the use of school bond money for the high-tech campus, scheduled to open in 1999, came from the San Fernando Valley.

"You know if this school was going to be built in Woodland Hills, there would be no delay," said Mauricia Miranda, president of the United Neighbors of Temple-Beaudry. "It's because we're poor that this is happening."

Shortly before the school board meeting began, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Diane Wayne decided not to block the vote, an action sought by the United Teachers-Los Angeles and the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union.

The lawsuit, filed last week, charges that the district violated several laws by not putting the project out to competitive bids, among other things.

But Wayne left her options open, saying that she could issue an injunction stopping the Belmont project at the next hearing on the charges, scheduled for May 2.

UTLA attorney Jesus E. Quinonez characterized the judge's words as a warning to the school district, which he said could be out $6.5 million in severance fees if the judge later overrules the contract approval. But David Cartwright, an attorney representing the district in its negotiations with Kajima International, said only $750,000 or so is at risk.

The district went to great lengths Monday to emphasize that funding for one project does not preclude meeting other commitments with the Proposition BB money. Officials handed out copies of a chart showing what a small slice of the bond pie the high school would represent. The board also approved spending up to $65 million even before the bonds are sold in August, for future reimbursement, on projects including:

* Air-conditioning for 148 schools from Harbor City Elementary in the South Bay to Van Nuys Middle School.

* Installation of security window grills at 25 campuses.

* Sixty-three other projects ranging from painting classrooms to repaving playgrounds.

But the board left until June 16 a decision on how to pay for the Belmont Learning Center. That delay will give the new bond oversight committee ample time to review financing options, said Mayor Richard Riordan's appointee to the panel, Steven Soboroff.

Soboroff, a real estate consultant, also issued a preliminary report card on the project, based on his briefing by district officials last Friday: an A+ on need for the school, an A+ on concept for the project, an A+ on negotiating a contract with a price lid, a B+ for cost per square foot.

"And your grade in communications and PR. Is an F," Soboroff said. "Too many voters at this point seem to be sorry they voted for the bond . . . because of the firestorm created about one project."

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