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School Board to Vote on Arts Campus Plan

L.A. Unified and a nonprofit group backed by Eli Broad would share responsibilities.

November 22, 2005|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

In an effort to build a showcase performing and visual arts high school downtown, the Los Angeles Board of Education is considering an unusual fundraising agreement that includes a $5-million contribution from billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.

Board members are scheduled to vote today on whether to partner with Discovering the Arts, a nonprofit organization formed to serve as the future school's fundraising arm. Broad has already committed the money to the group to help offset the high building and operating costs of the Grand Avenue campus.

The district anticipates the school will cost about $120 million, significantly more than previous estimates.

The agreement, which calls for the nonprofit group to pay the salary of an executive director and advise on the school's management, is uncharted territory for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Supporters of the plan have scrambled in recent weeks to assuage concerns of some board members and union leaders that the unusual relationship could threaten the district's control over the school.

"I think the lines of power are now clearly drawn," said local district Supt. Richard Alonzo, who has pushed strongly for the school. "As long as we remember that this is a school run by LAUSD."

The $5-million gift marks a return of sorts for Broad, who has been a generous donor to education issues but lately has had an uneven relationship with the district. Broad declined, for example, to support the district's successful campus construction bond campaign earlier this month. And, he has been supportive of the idea of mayoral control of urban school districts -- a concept Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pushed vigorously in recent days.

Broad has continued to support some Los Angeles educational efforts, including at least $8 million for the district's after-school program, LA's BEST.

He has long advocated for an arts facility, similar to New York City's famed LaGuardia campus, to be built close to the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the other cultural facilities in the area.

In 2003, some district officials and watchdog groups questioned whether Broad had too much influence in the conception and lavish design of the public school.

"It was clear that I was a lightning rod," he said. "I backed away."

While district records and interviews with several officials at the time indicated that Broad played a significant behind-the-scenes role, an internal investigation found no wrongdoing on his part.

Before the controversy, Broad offered to give $1.9 million to help run the school, but said taxpayer money should be used to build it. Earlier this year, he said, Supt. Roy Romer and board member Jose Huizar asked him to donate more, leading him to add $3.1 million toward construction costs. The nonprofit group, whose board includes musicians Placido Domingo, Tony Bennett and Quincy Jones, has pledged to raise $1.5 million more for building expenses.

On the site of the former district headquarters, the 1,700-student school will feature seven major buildings, including a 950-seat theater, music rehearsal rooms and art studios. With a sleek, futuristic design that some board members said they dislike, the school will be clad in a metallic-colored material and feature a soaring tower and conical library.

The district plans to select a contractor in February, with construction starting soon after. The school is scheduled to open in fall 2008 and will serve a community where schools are severely crowded. It is one of four high schools planned for the downtown area that Romer has said will form a "zone of choice," in which students would enroll in one of many career and art-themed programs.

The question of who would attend the school has been a point of contention. Some school board members wanted to open it as a magnet campus, which would draw students from all parts of the city. The district has other performing and visual arts magnet programs but none that has the level of support that the Grand Avenue campus stands to receive.

Today, board members acknowledge the need to open the school for neighborhood children but say they expect students from outside the area to be admitted once crowding has been relieved.

"If we're going to do a specialty school like this, it would be nice to open it up to everyone," said school board member Jon Lauritzen.

District officials have not yet worked out the admission requirements for the school, which will feature music, dance, theater and visual arts programs.

Under the terms of the agreement between the nonprofit group and the district, the executive director will be a district employee focusing on fundraising efforts. The school principal will be responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the campus.

Up to $400,000 of Broad's money will be used to pay the executive director's salary for the first two years, and the foundation is expected to continue to pay the salary afterward.

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