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School District Blew It on the Belmont Complex

Education: The need for reform, accountability and standards goes well beyond the this one project.

September 15, 1999|DON MULLINAX | Don Mullinax is the director of the Office of Internal Audit and Special Investigations Unit of the Los Angeles Unified School District

There is no viable public policy that requires a trade-off between safety and educational excellence, as the lesson of the Belmont Learning Center proves. Kids need schools, and they need safe schools. The report on Belmont released Tuesday by the Los Angeles Unified School District's Office of Internal Audit and Special Investigations Unit makes clear that previous L.A. school boards had no appropriate environmental standards in evaluating prospective school sites. Thus, plans proceeded apace to acquire an old oil field that contained potentially dangerous methane gas and then to build a high school on it, defying common sense.

The previous boards also had no significant experience in the execution of major public-private joint ventures in the development of such school facilities. The result is clear to taxpayers today, as the tab for Belmont tops $123 million and continues to rise. The necessary costs to mitigate environmental hazards will add millions of dollars more. No one person, of course, will accept responsibility. Fingers are being pointed in all directions by various factions.

But after six months of investigation, review of 15,000 documents and more than 65 interviews, we in the special investigation unit have uncovered the evidence and are naming names. The numerous failures of management and accountability have shown that the former LAUSD boards violated at least five California laws in the acquisition and development of Belmont. And that's just the legal improprieties. Add to the mix numerous failings in administration, management oversight and review, and the whole ugly picture takes form.

The LAUSD's culture of "deny, deflect and defend" could continue in the aftermath of these findings. Or we could see a community outcry too loud to allow it to continue to thrive. We hope for the latter. Meanwhile, Belmont awaits a technical fix, and this community and our children are long-suffering in their wait for a needed new school.

If the high school can be safely finished, we can achieve the twin goals of public safety and educational excellence. There is little doubt that Belmont began as a well-intentioned project a decade ago by a school district seeking to build a superior educational facility for an overcrowded, underserved population, the first high school to be built in Los Angeles in 25 years.

The climate at the time was one of financial difficulty, limited real estate options and political controversy. The mandate was there, just not the required methodology to do it right.

The result of the school boards' oversight function in relation to Belmont was ad hoc and generally rudderless. There was not a consistent mechanism to analyze and review professional staff qualifications, mission or deployment. The former school boards tolerated a culture remarkably indifferent to compliance with environmental or public health and safety standards, as well as a culture in which accountability was lax. To compound matters, the former boards were misinformed and misled by their staff and their outside consultants and vendors, some of whom are among this community's most respected firms.

Remarkably, the problem doesn't stop there. The California Department of Education failed to exercise its statutory duty to set and maintain appropriate standards to protect public health and safety in setting policy for the evaluation of environmental hazards associated with school site acquisitions and, more specifically, in approving state funds for the acquisition of the Belmont school site.

The governor's Office of Planning and Research failed to exercise its statutory duty as a clearinghouse in its administration of the California Environmental Quality Act by consistently failing to refer documents concerning Belmont to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

In light of these findings, a major sea change must occur at the LAUSD. First is a reform of school board practices that should include a code of ethics and a conflict-of-interest policy. New environmental, public health and safety policies must be adopted to protect the community at large, and schoolchildren and staff specifically. Professional staff functions should be reviewed and restructured to make them work properly, the first time. Those who were culpable for Belmont should be disciplined, and legal action taken against the district's consultants. At the very least, implementation of all requirements by the California Department of Toxic Substances for the completion of Belmont must occur.

The school district's problems go much deeper than any one project. But the board faces a tremendous challenge when trying to make meaningful changes. This is due, in part, to a culture that protects turf, avoids accountability and resists change. The board must become more proactive by critically examining the quality of its management personnel, reorganizing and acknowledging its inadequacies and aggressively pursuing ways to improve operations and accountability. Real reform will only be achieved when the school district acknowledges its problems, changes its culture and takes meaningful corrective action. The report issued by the investigations unit provides a road map for such meaningful reform.

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