L.A. school project still unresolved

The Associated Press
Saturday November 25, 2000

LOS ANGELES — Ten months after the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to abandon the Belmont Learning Complex because of environmental contamination concerns, the future of the nearly completed high school remains unresolved. 

Now supporters of the school, badly needed to serve the city’s most crowded neighborhood, plan to step up pressure on the board to perhaps complete the $200-million project. 

Next week, members of the citizens committee that oversees the district’s $2.4-billion school construction bond are expected to threaten to withhold funds from other school projects if the board does not reconsider its Belmont decision. 

The strategy is being closely watched by a broadening coalition of politicians, activists and lawyers who have concluded that the board should re-evaluate its position. 

But a majority of the seven board members say they will not budge from their conclusion that environmental contamination on the site just west of downtown makes it unsuitable for a school. 

Whether the committee could prevail in a showdown with the board isn’t clear. 

A judge has ruled that the board cannot act on bond funding issues without a review by the committee, created by voters when they approved the Proposition BB school bond in 1997, but once the committee has made its recommendation the board is free to ignore it.  

In the past, however, the board has almost always followed the committee’s recommendations. 

Conflict over Belmont is hardly new. The project’s unraveling last year over inadequate investigation of its environmental problems led to lawsuits and contributed to three incumbents losing in a school board election and to the ouster of then-Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. 

Meanwhile, the 4,500 students the school was meant to serve are still crammed into the original and much smaller Belmont two blocks away or riding buses to other parts of town. 

The bond oversight committee, which will meet Wednesday, has asked the board to complete studies to answer three key questions: Can Belmont be made safe, how much would that cost and how long would it take? 

Robert Garcia, chairman of the Proposition BB committee, said members need answers to those questions because they are being asked to fund new schools that would replace the Belmont complex.  

The district has proposed five sites that would serve Belmont students. 

Some on the committee favor a complete suspension of the district’s massive school building program until the board reviews Belmont, Garcia said.  

Others support denying funds just to the five proposed projects that would draw from the Belmont attendance area. 

New Superintendent Roy Romer has said he too hopes Belmont can be opened as a school, but he criticized the committee’s proposal, saying it would hold schools hostage. 

However, he concedes he’s grasping for a solution to a problem that can seem intractable. 

“I am trying to figure out how to put together a proposal which can get four votes (on the board),” he told the Los Angeles Times. 

“To date I don’t have the right package.”