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Firms Offer Fast Plan to Cool Classrooms

Heat: They want a contract to air-condition 300 campuses, and vow to finish the job in a fraction of the time the school district would take. Riordan is enthusiastic, Zacarias cautious.


A trio of power companies is seeking a contract to install air conditioning at more than 300 Los Angeles Unified School District campuses within a proposed 15 months--a fraction of the time it would take the district to do the work itself.

The proposal, made by a partnership that includes the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, offers to quickly deliver public schools from oppressive heat in exchange for the long-term right to provide the electricity for their central air-conditioning systems.

The partnership has so far declined to provide key details, including cost. But it submitted an outline of its "fast-track concept" earlier this week to Mayor Richard Riordan, a well-known proponent of public-private partnerships, even before it gave a copy to incoming schools Supt. Ruben Zacarias.

The proposal was immediately praised by Riordan, who called it "a very innovative way to get the best out of the public and the private sectors."

"It's a model of how the private sector can be a catalyst to get public projects accomplished under budget and in far less time," Riordan said.

But the plan was met by a cautious reaction from officials in the school system, where the chronic need for classroom air conditioning has come to symbolize district ineptitude for many parents.

Zacarias, who received a faxed copy of the proposal Wednesday afternoon, said he welcomed any plan that would speed up the installation of air conditioning.

But Zacarias also questioned whether the energy firms can meet their target deadline of September 1998, given the thousands of school repair projects the district is undertaking with funds raised through Proposition BB, the $2.4-billion bond measure approved by voters last month.

Zacarias scheduled a meeting with staff members today to discuss the proposal.

The partnership, known as the Energy Alliance, consists of the DWP and a joint venture of affiliates of Los Angeles-based Pacific Enterprises and San Diego-based Enova Corp. The three provide electricity and natural gas to more than 6 million customers across the region.

Zacarias and other district officials raised numerous questions about how realistic the Energy Alliance timetable may be, as well as potential regulatory hurdles.

For example, they wondered whether the Energy Alliance could legally serve as the exclusive energy source for a district that covers several cities and already conducts business with other power companies.

Some school officials also wondered whether an exclusive agreement with the Energy Alliance would violate state-mandated competitive bidding procedures.

Others expressed concerns about finances.

"How much is this going to cost us?" asked one official. "Is it responsible for us to take the [speedy estimate of] 15 months and disregard the dollar value? I don't know."

Still, the Energy Alliance proposal is bound to get attention in a school district where overcrowding has given rise to year-round schedules, and where temperatures in many classrooms rise to triple digits during the summer.

The need for air conditioning as well as dozens of other pressing repairs prompted 71% of voters to approve Proposition BB. But despite a pledge by the proposition's advocates to create cooler classrooms, district officials have said it will take up to four years to install air conditioning at schools across the sprawling district.

School officials blame the delays on the state, which must approve architectural plans and requires a public bidding process that is meant to ensure lower prices but often takes months to complete.

In response to concerns about the delays, which were outlined in a recent Times story, state lawmakers are weighing legislation that would speed up the design-approval process.

In the meantime, the Energy Alliance read about the air-conditioning delays for the schools and recognized a business opportunity that could also do some good, its members said. With deregulation of electricity in California set to begin on Jan. 1, companies are scrambling to find new market niches.

Energy Alliance officials say they can cut red tape--and costs--by treating the 301 schools needing air conditioning as one massive project. For example, the officials say they can purchase equipment and materials on a "projectwide" basis, rather than for individual schools.

Michael Dochterman, Energy Alliance program manager and the official who prepared the proposal for the school district, acknowledged that it could take longer than the promised 15 months to complete the job if contractors run into complications such as asbestos in some buildings. But he said the group is confident it can streamline the entire process.

"It's an aggressive plan, there's no question about it," Dochterman said. "We're an aggressive group."

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