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L.A. Unified takes hammer to its building unit

The loss of the head of the LAUSD's construction division could be the beginning of waste, cost overruns, political contracts and worse.

September 29, 2009|Constance L. Rice | Constance L. Rice is a civil rights attorney and a member of the School Construction Bond Oversight Committee.

The construction unit of the Los Angeles Unified School District has successfully and cost-effectively built 80 new schools and won scores of awards. So how has Supt. Ray Cortines rewarded this efficient unit? By driving out its superb leadership.

Guy Mehula, the talented head of the construction division, resigned Monday after LAUSD leaders made clear their intention of dragging Mehula's quasi-independent team back under the tight control of the district.

Taking away the unit's autonomy would be a huge mistake. The district has tried micromanaging the construction of schools, and it failed miserably. If you need convincing, just think about the disastrous cost overruns and construction errors of the Belmont Learning Complex.

For those who don't remember the horrific details, the district began construction at Belmont (or the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, as it was finally called) without required environmental reviews or professional managers, ultimately building a $160-million high school that the state declared unusable for children. A scathing audit of the debacle concluded that the project had violated environmental and public safety laws, and that the uninformed district had "tolerated a culture remarkably indifferent" to standards or accountability. The audit referred several of its findings to the district attorney for criminal investigation.

With a pressing need for new schools, then-Supt. Roy Romer and a newly elected board of education were determined to avoid more Belmonts, so they established a facilities division that was independent, expertly run and free of the district's torpid bureaucracy. The new unit was staffed by construc- tion professionals and experienced Navy engineers who were insulated from political and union pressures. Schools were built by carefully selected contractors who were closely monitored by an expert staff of auditors and managers.

The new division, charged with managing a $20-billion construction effort, quickly established a system of value-based contracting that permitted necessary -- but not political -- changes to contracts. And Romer was true to his word: The school board set policy and acquired land for schools, but otherwise stayed out of the way.

Now Cortines has rescinded key provisions that helped shield the facilities division from unwarranted interference. He announced the removal of the unit's specially assigned and quasi-independent lawyers and limited many new employees to 10 months of work and pay per year-- something few competent construction professionals would agree to. Cortines and the board also want to set salary limits that are not competitive. Mehula resigned because these and other proposals would end the independence that has made the school construction unit a success.

Cortines' actions come as the construction program is also facing other threats.

Some school board members, in actions reminiscent of the group that brought us Belmont, have started pushing for expensive and wasteful changes to building contracts. They have tried to use bond funds for things that are prohibited by the bond measure. And they have increasingly questioned contract awards and dismissed the judgment of facilities professionals. Most discouraging, I have heard two school board members suggest that the facilities division needs to "look more like Los Angeles." Although diversity is important, it cannot be allowed to trump the expertise needed to manage a massive school construction program.

With Mehula's resignation, bondholders, taxpayers and contractors should be very worried. If his expert management team leaves, the successful phase of school construction is almost certain to end -- and bond money will once again be wasted.

It is time to consider creating an independent construction authority for building schools. Doctors don't build hospitals, and lawyers don't build courthouses. Why should educators who can barely manage the mission of education build schools?

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