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EDUCATION

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

Then, in May 2000, the whole game plan suddenly changed. Kathi Littman, hired earlier that year as the district's director of new facilities, decided that pre-fab buildings weren't cost-effective. Community should get a campus that was "stick built"--constructed from scratch. The new budget was just over $6 million. There were dozens more meetings. By September, staff at the Walgrove School was growing upset at the scope of work being proposed for Community while its own rehabilitation needs went unmet. Progress on the new school slowed as the district addressed that problem. Then, in December, local district D Supt. Merle Price was shocked to discover that the school board had never approved giving Community any more than the original $4.2 million. And still, the work went on.

By January 2001, the new Community school had its third project manager--but still no official budget. By April, costs for building the new school were being estimated at more than $11 million. In May, Principal Marton reviewed the district's master-plan project list for new construction--and Community wasn't even on it. The district, under fire for its overcrowding problem, had created new criteria for which schools deserved new facilities. Because Community wasn't on a year-round schedule or busing students, it didn't meet them. Construction on the LACES sports facility was due to begin, which meant Community would be on the street.

In June of last year, exasperated parents flooded school board members with demands for action. No one seemed to remember what had been promised the school, or why, or even know what was happening. School board President Hayes, for instance, sent one parent an irritated note, saying that the promise to move Community had been "based on inaccurate information and faulty research" and that the Walgrove buildings that would house the school--there weren't any--had proved to have "major structural damage."

"I was dumbfounded," says the parent whose profession is public construction. "Unlike with other institutions, you didn't get the sense that anyone was in charge or in control of the process."

Then, in July, the district abruptly informed Community that it would not be moving after all. Martinez Amador was fired, and the project turned over to architect Laurel Gillette, who was designing the LACES sports complex (which now had to be reconfigured to fit in a smaller space). And it quickly became clear that $6 million, once declared enough to build a whole new school, wouldn't buy much at all.

As the plan now stands, by 2004--five years after the building effort began--Community will have a new multipurpose room, administration building, library and two bathrooms. Classes will continue to meet in the old bungalows, which will be given a new coat of paint, air conditioners and Internet connections. The budget for this improvement includes a whopping $526,000 in "project management" fees, $358,000 for design fees and $70,000-$100,000 to cover "soft costs" associated with the aborted Walgrove move. (The LACES sports project, meanwhile, which was to break ground this month, was suddenly found to be "several million" over budget and is on hold.) The land-poor district is doing nothing with the vacant acres at Walgrove.

How does a school district promise to move a school, offer a plan that meets its budget, expand that plan, then discover there's no money after all and cancel everything? Kathi Littman--who notes that she and her staff "inherited this effort"--gets an impatient edge in her voice when asked. "This is a grandfathered project, not a priority plan school," she says.

But the issue isn't whether Community "deserves" a new campus or not. It's that, in Supt. Romer's own words, past district construction estimates were sometimes based on "pure air." It's that no one ever is held accountable for such mistakes. And it's that no one at the district seems to grasp that these mistakes come with a price. Some of it is actual: The district consultants who attended three years of planning meetings were well paid for their time (although parents were not.) A larger part is psychic. The district desperately needs the support of active, concerned, middle-class parents. But when it treats those parents with dismissive contempt, when it wastes their time, when it convinces them that even their most strenuous exertions are futile, it has lost them.

"I hope things move forward, but I'm done," says a Community parent who was intensely involved in the effort to move the campus and who estimates his architectural firm contributed $15,000 in unpaid labor. "I have no more energy for this. We worked for three years, and designed two new schools, and we don't even have one."

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Carol Lynn Mithers is a Los Angeles writer and the parent of a student at Community Magnet School.

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