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LAUSD's Building Fantasy

No one at the district seems to grasp that these mistakes come with a price.

January 13, 2002|CAROL LYNN MITHERS

Last fall's announcement that the nightmarishly overcrowded Los Angeles Unified School District expects to complete 85 new schools and expand 75 others within six years should be cause for celebration. As a Times editorial wistfully noted, "We want to believe." But if the past offers any indication, the district is as likely to achieve that goal as its superintendent is to fly.

My skepticism stems from having seen what happened when the district tried to build just one school--on a site it already owned with funds it had committed. The Community Magnet School, an elementary school on Airdrome just east of La Cienega, is one of the district's jewels. Its multiethnic students get top Stanford 9 scores. It has enormously dedicated teachers and a flourishing parent association. In 1999, the school was the only LAUSD campus to receive a prestigious National Blue Ribbon award.

Since it was founded in 1977, however, this exemplary school has been squeezed onto a 2.5-acre slab of asphalt surrounded by a chain-link fence. Students are taught in 34-year-old "temporary" classrooms; two bathrooms and the school's former library were converted to classrooms after mandatory class-size reduction went into effect. The rooms have peeling paint, but no air conditioning or Internet access; two barely have windows. There's no auditorium, food preparation area, lunch room or covered halls--on rainy days kids eat in class, and when they go to the bathroom, they get wet. Three hundred students share eight toilets.

For years, Principal Pamela Marton begged the district for upgrades. Then, in April 1999, a representative sent by the U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon committee toured the school and reportedly told then-Supt. Ruben Zacarias and at least one school board member, "You should be ashamed." Within a month, word came down that a new Community campus was to be built, on an unused portion of the 9.8-acre site housing Walgrove Elementary School, in Venice.

Community's neighbor, the equally sterling Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), cheered--finally, this onetime junior high that now also has a high school could expand and build the sports facility it so badly needed. But parents and staff at Walgrove, an under-attended, dilapidated neighborhood school, were outraged. No one from LAUSD had told them this action was even being considered. They had been in talks with Santa Monica's Crossroads School founder Paul Cummins, who also wanted to build on their site, and who'd promised massive upgrades to their campus as part of the deal. And Community, most of whose students live well east of La Cienega, didn't want to move.

The district gave all the same basic reply: Too bad. At a June meeting, the district's then-project manager presented the plan: The school would be allocated $4.2 million, which would just cover the cost of building a modern campus of pre-fab modular structures, including an administration building, mutipurpose room, lunch shelter and other amenities. (About $1.2 million of this money would come from building-rehabilitation funds that Community was due to receive anyway, from passage of Proposition BB, a 1997 school repair bond measure.) The proposed opening date was fall 2000. If the school rejected this offer, it would be evicted when LACES built its facility and ultimately might be relocated somewhere like Sunland. Amid much grumbling, the parent body voted to endorse the change.

Immediately, school committees formed and went to work preparing for the move. Several parents were architects and focused on building design. Others reached out to the Walgrove community. Over the next six months, dozens of meetings took place, between Community and Walgrove principals and parents, staff and district project managers, and various independent consultants hired by the district. The Playa del Rey-based architectural firm of Martinez Amador Architects Inc. was hired and began designing the new campus.

Meanwhile, Barbara Boudreaux, the board member who'd pushed for Community's relocation, was replaced by Genethia Hayes. Supt. Zacarias was replaced first by Ramon C. Cortines, then Roy Romer. The district's facilities division, which oversees construction, was reorganized. By January 2000, Martinez Amador still didn't have a contract. By March, it was growing clear that $4.6 million for the new school wasn't enough. "Everyone knew you couldn't build a school for that price," says one parent, an architect who has been involved in public construction projects for 15 years. "But we were told to keep going."

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