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It's Not Too Late to Bring Back Belmont

The site's many environmental safety problems should be resolved so that the high school can open.

March 26, 2000|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

The reformers who are trying to fix the Los Angeles Unified School District before it gets broken up by angry voters have a decidedly mixed record so far.

Oh, they've ousted a superintendent and even halted some major school construction projects. But they also encouraged one of their allies to run for district attorney, with futile results. Little wonder they face a growing perception that they're a bunch of well-meaning but ineffective do-gooders.

The view is darker, of course, in the Latino community, whose children make up more than 70% of the public school students in Los Angeles. Latino activists see the board as a wrecking crew of paternalistic liberals who think they know what's best for all those little brown kids in their care.

This negative image may yet turn the city's emerging majority against the public schools, but the school board still can prevent that. It can start by finishing the new Belmont High School.

I am not referring to the entire Belmont Learning Complex, the elephantine public works project with housing and retail stores that has come to symbolize how poorly managed LAUSD is. I refer to the high school near completion on the controversial site, which is a few blocks from the badly overcrowded old Belmont High.

The LAUSD's chief operating officer, Howard Miller, has ordered a halt to construction at the new Belmont site, which (as everyone surely knows by now) sits over an abandoned oil field. He also has launched a search for alternative sites in the area for a series of smaller high schools.

Miller's plan so far has met with understandable criticism from Latino activists in the area. Their concerns range from fears over losing affordable housing to anger over plans to convert the popular Evans Community Adult School, where so many immigrants learn English and study to become citizens, into a high school campus.

Given the concerns, it will be a long time before any of the new, smaller high schools Miller envisions could open their doors. The school board itself has not yet voted on Miller's plan, and interim Supt. Ramon Cortines wants more information before making up his mind about any new Belmont site.

But it doesn't take a psychic to predict what is sure to happen if the board doesn't reverse its decision to abandon the new Belmont High School. The board's critics will cite lack of action as one more sign of the board's high-handed disregard for the Latino community. They will remind everyone of the crude manner in which the flawed but popular former Supt. Ruben Zacarias was ousted. And the gulf between the LAUSD and Latinos will grow even wider.

Miller's desire to be rid of Belmont as an issue is understandable if one assumes the project is a political negative. But recent election results call that conventional wisdom into question.

Why did the candidate who made the controversy over Belmont the cornerstone of his campaign for district attorney--the school board's environmental lawyer Barry Groveman--go down to such a decisive defeat earlier this month? Groveman spent more money and aired more TV commercials than the other two candidates, yet finished third in the voting.

Another election result that should give the school board pause is what happened to Proposition 26, the ballot measure that would have allowed local school bonds to pass with a majority vote instead of the two-thirds vote now required. I am among those who believe that the constant yammering about the Belmont project turned many voters who might have normally supported Proposition 26 against it. But I will concede other factors may also have played a role in the outcome of that election.

Still, the school board can take heart in the fact that a Times exit poll found that, in noteworthy contrast to statewide results, 61% of Latino voters supported Proposition 26. In other words, despite everything the school board has done to alienate Latinos, there is still a reservoir of support for the public schools in the Latino community.

But one wonders how long it will last if the school board keeps making dumb moves like firing popular Latino educators and, now, asking the city's most-densely populated Latino neighborhood to wait a few more years for a high school that has been needed for the past 20 years.

There is an impressive political coalition coming together in support of finishing the new Belmont High School, which would require mitigating whatever safety issues remain at the site. Led by Latino pols like County Supervisor Gloria Molina and City Councilman Mike Hernandez, this coalition also includes non-Latinos like L.A. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and members of the blue-ribbon commission that disburses local school construction funds.

It will take humility for the more self-righteous members of the school board to admit they may have been wrong to so thoroughly and constantly bash the Belmont project. But if they have to guts to finish the high school, that just might start healing the rift with their biggest, and arguably most important, constituency.

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