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Dom Shambra dies at 70; championed Belmont Learning Complex

Los Angeles school district insider was known for relishing challenges that would have daunted others. The long-beleaguered Belmont site finally opened last year under a different name.

October 21, 2009|Howard Blume

Dom Shambra, a consummate school district insider who sacrificed a distinguished career in Los Angeles to champion the Belmont Learning Complex, the nation's most notorious high school construction project, has died. He was 70.

Shambra died of congestive heart failure Monday at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, said his son Dominic Jr.

Well-regarded as a skilled, no-nonsense teacher and principal, Shambra rose out of a tight-knit East L.A. educator network to take on increasingly challenging roles, especially in the 1990s, working with Bill Anton, who became the district's first Latino superintendent.

Reporting directly to Anton and his successors, Shambra eventually oversaw consultants who spearheaded the groundbreaking Belmont complex, which was to include housing and retail development as well as sorely needed relief from overcrowding in a cash-strapped school system that had not yet obtained voter- approved construction bonds.

The project came under withering attack from Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, which was trying to organize a hotel owned by the company chosen to build the school. The union assisted journalists in uncovering conflicts of interest among Shambra's consultants as well as environmental concerns over the site, a former oil field.

Mayor Richard Riordan used the Belmont controversy to help elect a new school board majority, which canceled the half-built project in 2000, citing environmental hazards. Shambra, by then retired, continued working behind the scenes to argue for the school's completion.

"He took those jobs that weren't pleasant," said former L.A. Supt. Sid Thompson. "He almost relished them. And he was not one to tell you what you wanted to hear. It caused problems with some people, but most people liked him."

The Belmont site opened last year as the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, thanks largely to the intervention of a later superintendent, Roy Romer, who agreed with Shambra that the school could be operated safely.

Dominic Shambra was born Jan. 2, 1939, in Alhambra to Italian immigrant parents. He graduated from Wilson High and worked as a playground supervisor while earning bachelor's and master's degrees in education at Cal State L.A.

By the early 1980s, Shambra had marked himself as an administrator who handled tough jobs. When enrollment declined sharply in the Westside and the San Fernando Valley, he managed the unpopular task of closing 22 schools.

Later that decade, behind the scenes, Shambra helped battle developer Donald Trump to a draw over control of the old Ambassador Hotel site. Two schools finally opened there this fall. Shambra also helped quietly engineer Anton's superintendency by urging civic leaders to abandon support for then-Supt. Leonard Britton, an "outsider" hired from Florida.

With the Ambassador project stalled, Shambra's team turned to Belmont. He became the face of the project in a nearly two-decade saga that led to local political upheaval, as well as wholesale changes in environmental reviews.

Shambra also was an elected member of the San Gabriel Unified school board for 20 years starting in 1973.

In addition to his son Dominic Jr., Shambra is survived by sons James and Nick; two grandchildren; and his longtime companion, Betty Hanson. His wife, Kathleen, died in 1996.

Services will be at noon Monday at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena. Instead of flowers, the family has requested donations to American Educators of Italian Origin United in Los Angeles.


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