More than a decade ago, a community lived, worshiped and worked on the land that is now a symbol of the Los Angeles Unified School District's dysfunction. When private developers sought to demolish this immigrant neighborhood for high rises, as a member of the Los Angeles City Council, I demanded that residents be provided market rates for their homes and relocation costs.
The council insisted that all of the affordable-housing stock be replaced--one for one--and that the project include much-needed green space, child care centers and critical community services. The developers agreed. We walked door-to-door reassuring families, and even a church, that they would not just be pushed aside to make way for private interests as had occurred far too often in our community's history.
The now infamous "Central City West" never came to be because the recession of the 1990s brought downtown construction to a halt. The Belmont Learning Complex was then proposed for the site. Parents, frustrated with the overcrowded Belmont High School or with having to bus their children for more than two hours a day, were promised a new facility 20 years ago. Completion of the school was now within reach.
Close to 200 million of taxpayer dollars later, it is not the underground natural gases that have prevented the completion of the school. Instead, poor management, outside political interests and the new school board majority's pledge to deliver on a campaign promise to stop the "Taj Mahal" from ever being built brought us to where we are today.
These decisions were made even though the public continues to be denied a simple explanation and a presentation of the facts. The school board refuses to consider the facts, ignoring its own interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines' recommendation to complete a study by the state Department of Toxic Substance Control before deciding to stop the project. They have dismissed requests by the Proposition BB Oversight Committee (created to monitor wasteful spending) to complete the study before pursuing other, more costly and less effective alternatives.
Last week, the Belmont community received another slap in the face, when the superintendent and school board decided to pursue selling the Belmont site as a final solution to the debacle. What is worse is that the decision is cloaked under a disingenuous pretense of pursuing Belmont's completion by requesting that the private sector submit proposals about how to make it safe. This is being pursued even though the board majority has made it clear that their true intention is to rid themselves of the problem by selling the property to the private sector. This "compromise" was brokered as the only means of getting the votes to pursue selling the property.
Once the property is sold, no one but the parents will care about what happens to Belmont. The private sector will make its profit, while proclaiming its concern for the lack of a trained work force in the city. More children will be cramped into the already bursting-at-the-seams high schools, and the number of children being bused to the suburbs, simply to get a basic education, will increase each year.
We've almost come full circle and the community is now worse off.
The story of Belmont is a shameful chapter in our city's history. It tells a story of where power really lies and how private and political interests take precedence over the public good.
As someone who has played a role in this tale, I insist that if Belmont is sold, it must benefit the public good, serving the community that has long suffered from false promises and political scapegoating. The needs are tremendous in this community and more office space or luxury apartments are not among them. At the end of the day, if the land is sold to private developers, the real motives behind this fiasco will be known.
One can only hope that the process the school board reluctantly adopted will be left untainted by political handling. If the facts prevail, the final decision will be obvious: complete the Belmont Learning Complex. Unfortunately, powers greater than myself and the residents in the neighborhood will make that final determination. And if the story line follows its course, it will not end with the community on the prevailing side. I hope we are proved wrong.