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State Audit Panel Criticizes Belmont School Contracting

Education: Memo questions why district pursued joint venture with private developers after problems surfaced. High costs are also cited.

September 11, 1997|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

A state audit committee has found ample justification to pursue its investigation of the Belmont Learning Center, according to a status report released Wednesday on the controversial high school.

The Sept. 4 memo from the Joint Legislative Audit Committee criticizes the Belmont project as "the culmination of nearly a decade of efforts" by the Los Angeles Unified School District to create questionable joint venture projects with private developers. The projects "permit private development teams to win contracts without meeting the general contracting code requirement of being the lowest responsible bidder."

Citing news reports and internal documents, it observes:

* The campus, now under construction near downtown, will cost more than $150 million--making it the most expensive high school in California history--yet adds very few new high school seats because it replaces the current Belmont High.

* Although developer-provided financing was a significant factor in the choice of a development team headed by Kajima International, "the private finance has not materialized," leading the district to seek public funds.

* Architectural fees of about $6 million "may exceed state standards for a project of this scale by more than $1.7 million."

* Consultant fees have cost more than $1 million since 1994 and the committee alleges that some money may have been paid to a former school district employee who helped plan other failed joint venture proposals.

But, most of all, the Sept. 4 memo from the committee chairman, Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Los Angeles), questions why the district forged ahead with the public-private venture even after the adjacent retail development began to appear less and less financially viable. Ultimately, the Board of Education approved the project without any commitment for the stores that were supposed to help offset construction costs.

Wildman said the committee will focus its probe mainly on oversight, costs, the relationship between public and private purposes and the use of outside consultants.

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