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LAUSD's building problem

If the school board returns to micromanaging its building program after the departure of its construction chief, it can only be bad news for students and the city.

September 30, 2009

The Los Angeles Unified School District does few things efficiently and competently. The big exception has been its construction effort of the last several years, guided by Guy Mehula. The facilities unit has built 80 schools and done most of the jobs well, on time and within budget. It's not a coincidence that Mehula's division has operated with an unusual amount of independence and freedom from school board politics and central office bureaucracy. Mehula's resignation on Monday, and the loss of a measure of that independence, are discouraging signs not only for the future of school construction but for the district as a whole.

Supt. Ramon C. Cortines may have felt compelled to act after a 2008 audit revealed that many of the consultants working for the facilities division were paid much more than district staff. Some of these consultants were also found to be underqualified for their jobs and had overstepped their authority by making decisions about the hiring and pay of district workers.

These are serious concerns, though the audit also said that some of the problems already had been addressed. But Cortines must make sure that he isn't being penny-wise and pound-foolish if he restricts consultant pay and moves more of that work under the district, as he reportedly intends to do. There is no money to be gained for classrooms this way; bond funding can be used only for construction, refurbishment and certain equipment. What's more, it proved worthwhile, under Mehula, to pay for top people who get the job done. History has shown that botched construction projects can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and deprive students in crowded schools of badly needed new campuses. The bungled Belmont Learning Complex, which helped lead to the creation of the more independent construction team, was the subject of a scathing audit that found the district had shown little regard for safety, law or accountability. It's not reassuring to think of a return to district oversight.

It is unclear how Cortines will shield the $20-billion construction effort from the political pressures that already plague other parts of the district. This page has criticized the district for handing the new Mendez Learning Center in East L.A. to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools without community input or public airing. Cortines told The Times that he was pressured into doing so by school board President Monica Garcia, a close ally of the mayor. What else will board members demand in the way of special favors on facilities?

L.A. Unified is seldom at its best when it micromanages -- a lesson worth remembering.

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