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For L.A. schools, an advanced degree in construction

California needs to create a professionally run, independent construction authority for large public school construction programs before more billions in construction bonds are mismanaged.

March 13, 2011|By Connie Rice

I've served 10 years on the citizens committee that oversees the Los Angeles Unified School District's building program. As I leave that post, I've drawn one clear conclusion: Educators should not manage large school construction programs. Without an independent, professionally run school construction authority, taxpayers will never be protected from the kind of mismanagement chronicled in The Times' "Billions to Spend" series on the bungled building program of the Los Angeles Community College District, and in news articles more than a decade earlier about the Los Angeles Unified School District's Belmont fiasco.

For those who don't remember, Belmont was the school construction disaster in which L.A. Unified put a football coach in charge of building a $160-million high school, which the state ultimately declared unusable for children. A scathing audit concluded that an "uninformed" and "unaccountable" school board had violated laws governing hazardous waste, environmental quality and public safety. The debacle earned a segment on "60 Minutes."

In the wake of Belmont, voters in 1999 elected a reform slate to the Board of Education, and the new board hired Roy Romer as superintendent to fix the district's construction mess. To preclude another Belmont, and the kind of wasteful mistakes we're seeing today at the community colleges, Romer leveraged an overcrowded-schools court victory won by my law firm and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to create a nimble, expert-run school construction system. That lawsuit freed up $750 million in state bond money for school construction in Los Angeles. With it, Romer hired a talented team of retired Navy engineers led by Capt. James McConnell, and I joined the citizens oversight committee. Romer and his team transformed L.A. Unified's disastrous building program into an award-winning one.

But it took uncommon leadership by Romer and new board President Genethia Hayes to protect the new construction unit from school board micromanagement, union requests, job patronage and other political meddling. The program was insulated from the district's torpid bureaucracy with separate legal, procurement and contracting staffs. The Navy engineers set strict rules for hiring the best contractors at the best value, and even stricter rules that blocked political changes to contracts. An extensive auditing system was set up to ensure that money was spent legally and wisely. Finally, the politically neutral Citizens Oversight Committee, with full-time professional staff and able members with time to volunteer, served as watchdog. Once voters saw that competent construction managers were in charge of the school building program, they passed four consecutive school construction bonds to match the statewide bonds, providing more than $20 billion for school construction.

Over the next nine years, this quasi-independent construction enterprise built more than 140 desperately needed schools, the vast majority on budget and on time. It completed $3.7 billion in repairs, avoided major waste and won more than 85 private sector awards. As a result, most district schools are no longer severely overcrowded and multi-tracking and busing students from packed neighborhood schools will soon end.

Unfortunately, with $7 billion in construction bonds left, this extraordinary "mega-construction" system is now being dismantled. Guy Mehula, the last Navy engineer to head the unit, resigned last year after district decisions compromised the program's integrity and independence. The district threatened to move his skilled staff back into the bureaucracy. It forced construction manager contracts to follow the schools' 10-month schedule, which makes no sense for building projects with varied timelines, and imposed senseless cuts to the bond-funded building program in a show of shared sacrifice during the current fiscal crisis.

The district replaced Mehula with a more compliant manager who cut his teeth with the troubled community college building program. Worse, some school board members are again requesting wasteful project changes, pushing union requests that make for less efficient construction, questioning contract awards and suggesting prohibited uses of bond funds. As one politician recently told me, "We're the elected officials, and we should have control over the bond funds."

As Belmont and now the community college debacle show, politicians and educators are the last people who should build schools or control bond funds. We don't trust politicians to manage the printing of money; that's why we have the Federal Reserve. We cannot expect politicians and educators to wisely use billions of construction dollars to build dozens of schools. It's not that they aren't well intentioned; they just don't have the required skills, and the incentives for patronage overwhelm all but the most exceptional leaders.

The state needs to create a professionally run, independent construction authority for large public school construction programs, including community colleges, before more billions in construction bonds are mismanaged by unqualified and politicized entities.

Connie Rice is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles. She was appointed by controllers Rick Tuttle, Laura Chick and Wendy Greuel to the School Construction Bond Citizens' Oversight Committee.

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