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Plan for Arts Campus Questioned

Eli Broad lobbies L.A. Unified for a lavish high school. Some say he has too much influence on a project that would cost at least $18 million extra.

September 28, 2003|Duke Helfand and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

The high school planned for downtown Los Angeles originally came with a no-frills budget and a clear mandate: Ease overcrowding for students packed into nearby Belmont High School.

Then billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad lobbied Los Angeles school officials to redesign the Grand Avenue campus into an elaborate visual and performing arts school. The new proposal -- including a soaring tower, a conical library, two theaters and exhibition space -- would cost taxpayers at least $18 million extra and delay construction by a year.

Now, as architects draw up their final plans, some school district officials and watchdog groups question whether Broad has intervened in the school project to advance his much-heralded plans for reviving downtown's Grand Avenue.

The head of a citizens committee overseeing school construction complained that Broad, a generous donor to education, has been given an inordinate say in a taxpayer-funded project, compromising the Los Angeles Unified School District's independence.

"The concern is that ... because of [Broad's] position, wealth and clout, his views carry more weight than they should," said Robert Garcia, chairman of the district's School Construction Bond Citizens Oversight Committee. "I think Broad expresses his preferences and then the district carries them out."

Broad adamantly denied the allegation, saying his only motive was to help the school district build a marquee campus.

His involvement in the design of the $87-million school is under investigation by Los Angeles Unified Inspector General Don Mullinax, who is looking into allegations of "undue influence by outside parties" at the site, according to internal district documents and sources. Mullinax, who is broadly charged with weeding out waste, fraud and abuse in the school district, would not comment further on his inquiry.

But district records and interviews with several current and former district officials indicate that Broad played a significant behind-the-scenes role in having the school redesigned and in choosing a renowned Austrian architectural firm for the job.

District officials in charge of the school met with outside arts experts at the Broad Foundation's Westwood headquarters to interview new designers. Later, the district signed an agreement with Broad, accepting up to $600,000 as an interest-free loan from his foundation and pledging to consult the foundation over selection of the architect.

Legal experts say Broad broke no laws, noting that private citizens are allowed to lobby public agencies.

"I see influence. I do not see improper influence," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles research organization. "The school board [is] going to have to ... bite the bullet and convince the public that they spent taxpayers money appropriately." The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. is skeptical, given the financial constraints on a district struggling to build more than 100 campuses to relieve severe overcrowding.

"The fact that they are using taxpayer funds for something way beyond the normal scope of [school] construction is an affront to taxpayers," said Jon Coupal, the association's president. "We simply do not see how this can be justified."

Broad and L.A. Unified Supt. Roy Romer strongly defended the redesign of the school, saying they are capitalizing on a rare opportunity to build a sophisticated arts campus for low-income students on a street lined with some of the city's most prestigious cultural institutions.

"I want to do things that are good for the community," Broad said. "I think it's high time that this district have a number of schools that are flagships they can be proud of."

Broad said his philanthropic foundation has committed $1.9 million toward the school's operating budget for the first several years -- an unusually large private donation. But he said he believed construction of the campus, as in the case of other public schools, should be financed by public funds.

Broad and Romer insisted that the district has controlled the project from the outset, including the decision last year to engage the Coop Himmelblau architectural firm of Vienna to redesign the school. The firm has proposed an elegant campus, with flourishes not typical of public schools. The final design is to be reviewed for approval by district administrators in November. "The district wanted to do it," Broad said of the decision to turn the school into an arts campus. "I am an advocate and supporter of what they are doing."

It is unclear who hatched the idea of building an arts school on Grand Avenue, at the site of the former district headquarters. Richard Alonzo, local superintendent in charge of downtown schools, had begun meeting with civic leaders to push for an arts high school more than two years ago. But records and interviews show that the redesign only took off once Broad became involved.

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