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Belmont Panel Sends Mixed Message

May 15, 1997|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The Los Angeles Unified School District never should have attempted the complex public-private deal to build a high school near downtown, members of a special committee formed to evaluate the Belmont Learning Center said Wednesday.

But the group, making its first detailed comments, said it is too late to turn back now on the $87-million project. The high school proposal is controversial because of its cost and its promises of creative financing, retail shops and low-income housing--none of which have materialized.

"This is the kind of thing the school district just doesn't know how to do," said Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Non Profit Housing and a member of the oversight committee.

"Should you build another school like this?" asked fellow committee member Eduardo Vivas, an industrial engineer for Florida public schools. "I don't think so. I think you should just do it . . . simply."

The two, along with three other members of the Belmont Oversight Committee, had been asked to share their perspectives in person and via speaker phone with the Proposition BB Blue Ribbon Oversight Committee, which is monitoring the district's use of funds from a $2.4-billion campus improvement measure approved by voters last month. The BB committee took on oversight of the Belmont plan because the district wants to use at least $40 million in bond revenues for the school.

Although the bond oversight committee is holding all its meetings in public, the Belmont group always met in private, issuing confidential reports through the district to the school board.

Just six months ago, the Belmont panel had recommended that the district consider pulling out of the development deal with Kajima International for the property at Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue.

But on Wednesday, members said too much time and money has been expended to change course. A development contract with Kajima was signed by the school board last month, then was held up in court subject to review by the new bond oversight committee.

While the planned high school is generally believed to be the most costly ever in California, district officials maintain that when costs per square foot are considered, it is in the ballpark with several other schools.

Part of the high cost reflects the steep terrain of the property, which caused the developer to plan a high school that sits atop retail and parking space. "It's one of the most horrendous sites to put a high school on, and you see that reflected in the costs," Vivas said.

Questions were raised anew Wednesday about the process that led to choosing a developer, in which the two rejected bids--$59 million and $68 million--were lower than Kajima's then $99-million plan. Though by law public projects must go to the lowest bidder, the district says a loophole allowed it to negotiate a fixed price with the developer of choice, then turn to competitive bidding when the construction and other components are subcontracted.

David Cartwright, the attorney negotiating the project for Los Angeles Unified, said the district never intended the original bids to be binding but instead "wanted people to concentrate on creativity" in their designs for the 35-acre site.

Bond committee member David Barulich, who represents the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., shot back: "I want to focus on how we're spending public money to build schools. Believe me, taxpayers care about the price."

Cartwright said one of the other two plans--by Goldrich, Kest--called for building atop former oil wells on the site, in conflict with district requests that only athletic fields be put there for safety reasons. Later in the day, Goldrich, Kest partner Robert Hirsch denied that charge: "We designed our building around known oil well problems."

The district is counting on state matching funds for the project. Wednesday, a state official expressed newfound optimism that the State Allocation Board would agree to offer at least part of the money.

"If they did not, it would be a tremendous shock to me," said Lyle Smoot, the board's assistant executive officer. Smoot's statement appeared to contradict his comment a month ago that California did not have $40 million left over in its pot of state bond funds. On Wednesday, he said it would be possible to promise reimbursement to the Los Angeles school district, hinging on passage of another state bond.

However, state Sen. Leroy Greene (D-Carmichael), chairman of the allocation board, has been adamant that the state should not fund the Belmont project because it was not subject to competitive bidding.

On Wednesday, a bill by Greene aimed at clarifying that stance worked its way out of his Senate Education Committee.

The bond oversight committee is supposed to recommend a Belmont financing plan to the school board June 16. The next committee meeting is scheduled for June 9, when district officials are expected to address the lingering concerns of some committee members.

Among those are questions from the panel's vice chairman, Los Angeles Deputy Controller Timothy Lynch, who cited the pollution under a South-Central middle school that has delayed its opening. He wondered if the same thing could occur at the Belmont site, which hovers over former oil wells.

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