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Inglewood's Mayor Imagines a Super-School

Education: The 5,000-student complex, proposed for an oil exploration area, would buck trend toward smaller campuses.

August 05, 1999|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Given the gloomy scenarios surrounding the $200-million, half-finished Belmont Learning Complex in Los Angeles, it's not surprising that school reformers predict that it will close the door on mega-high school construction in the United States.

Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn, however, would beg to differ. In tones brimming with civic pride, Dorn has been pitching his own proposal to build a 5,000-student learning center that would consist of a high school, a science and math magnet, a technical school and a performing arts theater.

All this on a weedy parcel currently occupied by the city's dilapidated Morningside High School, just south of the Hollywood Park racetrack, where exploratory oil drilling is about to begin.

Never mind the unnerving resemblance between the Inglewood proposal and the politically volatile and polluted Belmont, a behemoth project erected on an abandoned oil field emitting potentially explosive methane gas.

Under an agreement between the Inglewood Unified School District and Shamrock Resources, a petroleum firm, if the exploratory effort produces gushers, income generated from local mineral leases would be funneled into the district's needy coffers, officials said.

The specter of oil wells pumping beside a state-of-the-art super school, Dorn said, "doesn't bother me at all."

"They have a few oil wells at Beverly Hills High School right now, and that school looks like a college campus with the best of everything," he said. "If it can work there, there's no reason why it can't work in Inglewood."

The proposal was cooked up some months ago by Dorn and former Inglewood Unified Supt. McKinley Nash, who died July 4.

"What you'd end up with here is a magnet within the high school, with the best chemistry labs and biology labs and teachers around," Dorn said, "along with a program for those students who do not want to go to college."

The proposal, which is still only in the talking stages, comes at a time when Inglewood residents are clamoring for better schools and educational opportunities for their children. Voters recently approved--by an astonishing 84% margin--a $131-million bond sale aimed at refurbishing the city's old, shabby schools.

"The mayor is excited about it, he tells me about it, and it might be a vision that will come to pass someday," said Eveline Ross, president of the Inglewood Unified Board of Education. "If we could find funding for it, it would be fantastic."

Inglewood Teachers Assn. President Jimmy Ellis agreed, to a point.

"The mayor wants to see it happen, and we're not in disagreement with him," he said. "But the super-high school idea remains way up in the air. I don't think it will happen any time soon."

Even discussing such a proposal bucks a national trend. When it comes to school reform, smaller schools are held up as a model. Research affirms, for example, that smaller schools provide more chances for students to learn and develop closer working relationships with teachers.

David Abel, a member of Los Angeles' Proposition BB Citizens Oversight Committee, labeled Dorn's vision "a crime and not educationally sound."

"There's a host of literature that smaller neighborhood schools are where the nation's $15-billion annual budget for new school construction is headed," he said. "The huge 5,000-student schools lead to separating the student population from their community. They are mini-penal colonies, not schools."

Then there's the messy spectacle of the Belmont Learning Complex, which continues to fuel hand-wringing and interagency squabbling.

After construction had begun in downtown Los Angeles, testing turned up potentially explosive methane and other oil byproducts at the site.

Tests are now underway to determine the extent of the contamination and what must be done to ensure the safety of those who would use the 39-acre, 4,800-student campus.

Depending on the findings, which could call for expensive mitigation measures, the scheduled July 2000 opening could be delayed and the price tag could rise by as much as $10 million. Shamrock attorney Jack Quirk contends that the Belmont project and what is planned for Morningside High's undeveloped property are worlds apart.

"At Belmont there is the logic, or not, of having a mega-learning institution at all, and the logic, or not, of placing such a complex on an abandoned oil field," he said.

"What's proposed at Inglewood is a state-of-the-art oil and gas facility," he said, where monitoring and maintenance are constant.

And, if Dorn has his way, a showcase educational complex. "The dream the mayor has is a beautiful one and it would be great for Inglewood," Ross said. "But the school board will make the final determination about what goes on in this district."

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