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L.A. Unified construction chief resigns

During James Sohn's brief tenure with the district, 21 new schools opened to reduce overcrowding. He came under scrutiny, however, for his handling of contractors in the nation's largest school-building program.

March 16, 2011|By Howard Blume and Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • James Sohn, seen in 2010 in the auditorium at the Central Los Angeles Learning Center, says he is in negotiations to work for a firm in Northern California, where he has family.
James Sohn, seen in 2010 in the auditorium at the Central Los Angeles Learning… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

The head of the $20-billion construction program for the Los Angeles Unified School District announced his resignation Tuesday, the second departure in two years of the top official for the nation's largest school-construction program.

James Sohn had the support of Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who said he especially valued Sohn's efforts to streamline the maintenance of schools in the wake of budget cuts. But Sohn, 44, also has come under scrutiny for his handling of contractors in the district's massive school-building program.

Sohn said he had submitted a letter of resignation in early December but that he stayed several months later at the request of Cortines. Sohn said in an interview Tuesday that he is in negotiations to work for a firm in Northern California, where he has family.

With Cortines' retirement next month, the timing seemed right for him to go as well, said Sohn, who makes about $220,000 a year.

On Tuesday, both Cortines and school board President Monica Garcia praised Sohn's work.

An L.A. Unified news release noted that during Sohn's tenure, 21 new schools opened to reduce overcrowding, including the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex.

One issue that arose during his L.A. Unified tenure was whether Sohn properly oversaw a group of senior managers who were later accused of successfully obtaining a contract that they allegedly created for themselves while with the district. Those contractors have denied wrongdoing.

Sohn also has come under fire for allegedly using highly paid contractors for work that could have been performed by district employees.

On Tuesday, Sohn said that he takes great pride in what the district construction program has accomplished.

This is Sohn's second time working for the district. He left in 2005 and went on to work in construction management for the San Bernardino school district and Rio Hondo College in Whittier.

In April 2007, Sohn, by then a vice president of URS Corp. of San Francisco, a major construction and engineering firm, was named program manager for the Los Angeles Community College District's $5.7-billion campus building effort.

At the college district, Sohn was admired by some for slicing through bureaucracy to get the program moving, but disliked by others for what they saw as his imperious management style. Sohn resigned months after nearly losing his job in the wake of such complaints, Larry Eisenberg, then head of the college district's construction program, said in an interview last year.

Eisenberg was fired last week, after a Times series exposed waste and poor management in the college construction program.

As a senior lieutenant to Eisenberg, Sohn's actions have come under scrutiny as well.

Sohn said his departure from L.A. Unified has nothing to do with The Times articles or his work at the community college district.

"I have not had one person at the school district or in the superintendent's office or board office ask me a single question about that," Sohn said.

A district official, however, confirmed Tuesday that issues raised in The Times' articles were being reviewed to determine the extent of a potential investigation by L.A. Unified.

Sohn's predecessor at the school district, Guy Mehula, decided to resign in September 2009 after a dispute with Cortines, largely over concerns about whether the construction program would be free of bureaucratic and political interference.

howard.blume@latimes.com

gale.holland@latimes.com

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