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L.A. schools construction chief resigns

Guy Mehula, 56, who had been with the program since 2002, quit after an apparent power struggle with district leadership. James Sohn is named interim facilities chief.

September 29, 2009|Seema Mehta

Guy Mehula, the highly regarded head of the Los Angeles Unified School District's massive school construction program, has resigned after an apparent power struggle with district leadership.

In a brief letter to subordinates Monday, Mehula gave no hint of discord, painting his departure as an opportunity to search for new challenges. "The work that we have done together and the investments we have made in our schools, community, and economy are significant," he wrote.

But critics say Mehula's resignation is fallout from a growing rift between his facilities services division and district headquarters, prompted by policy changes made by Supt. Ramon C. Cortines that threaten to dismantle the award-winning division.

"There's an old saying: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' " said Thomas A. Rubin, a consultant to the district's bond oversight committee, which is overseeing expenditure of more than $20 billion in voter-approved school construction and modernization funds. "This ain't broke. It's not perfect, but it is almost without any doubt whatsoever the best thing the district has done in decades."

For many years, the facilities division had been at the center of significant turmoil, cost overruns and other problems, most notably the construction of the Belmont Learning Complex atop an oil field. The project ended up taking 15 years and costing more than $400 million. About a decade ago, after the Belmont furor, there was a push to create a quasi-independent facilities division that was insulated from district politics and composed of professional construction managers instead of district insiders.

Mehula, 56, joined the district in 2002 after a long career in construction, including 25 years in the Navy, where he oversaw construction projects throughout the Pacific. As chief facilities executive, he earned $244,201 annually. Attempts to reach him Monday were unsuccessful.

Cortines praised Mehula's tenure at the district, during which 80 new schools were built. The superintendent named James Sohn as interim chief facilities executive.

"Because of Guy Mehula's leadership, thousands of our students attend new schools. As a result, most LAUSD students go to school during the traditional September-June academic year while a declining number remain on the year-round calendar," Cortines said.

Cortines noted that Mehula had tried to resign twice in the last month but said he had refused to accept. The superintendent said he did so after finding the latest resignation letter in his mailbox Saturday, but said the two men had worked well together and he had hoped Mehula would stay.

But critics said that several policy changes by Cortines contributed to Mehula's departure, including no longer allowing the division to act as a quasi-independent agency with its own in-house attorneys and procurement department. They also said recent moves, such as a resistance to offering salaries competitive with the private sector, would jeopardize the department's ability to attract qualified professionals.

"The history of the construction program . . . mandated that any successful school construction program would have to be independent of the district's inefficient, notoriously torpid bureaucracy," Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who serves on the bond oversight committee, said Monday. "If you go back to the days of allowing an amateur board to micromanage in the professional management of the construction program, you're going back to the kind of mistakes that produced the Belmont fiasco."

Cortines said that such charges were false and that he has a duty as the district's leader to ensure that voter-approved bonds are spent carefully.

"Voters gave [the bond money] to us, and people in L.A. are struggling economically," he said. "I have a responsibility to see we use the money wisely."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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