Fernando Contreras points to the area behind a green mesh fence where his family home used to be. He is about to be a grandfather for the first time. Still, he is a youthful-looking man with brown, wavy hair, wearing the uniform of the candy factory where he works. At the top of Boylston Street Contreras stands with his brother John and recalls the roomy, three-bedroom home with two garages and a laundry room where they grew up. A nearby elementary school is named after their deceased aunt, Betty Placencia, a beloved teacher’s aide and community leader. The mostly Latino Temple Beaudry neighborhood is one of the poorest areas in Los Angeles, within sight of the grand skyscrapers on Bunker Hill downtown. Where the Contreras home once stood there is now a huge, abandoned construction site. Its focal point is a half-built peach-and-beige-colored brick building towering over hills of dirt, wild mustard, scattered trash and tumbleweed.
This site was to be the home of the Belmont Learning Complex, called the most expensive school in America, with its $200 million price tag. The development was originally conceived in 1985 by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) as a middle school to alleviate the severe overcrowding in the area. The project ballooned into a planned thirty-five-acre, state-of-the-art, Internet-wired senior high campus, with a shopping mall to jump-start commercial development in the area, 120 affordable apartments to address the housing crunch, classrooms and innovative “academies” for 5,000 students.
More than ten years later, however, the Belmont development is mired in controversy over “waste, fraud and abuse” (as one state assemblyman put it), lack of accountability and the public’s discovery of what at least some in the school district already knew–that explosive methane gas, poisonous hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds such as acetone, the carcinogen benzene and residual crude oil saturated the earth where the school was being built, on top of a former oilfield and industrial site.
The scandal generated a centrifugal force felt throughout the city. Three members of the Board of Education known as supporters of Belmont were ousted in elections last year and replaced by members who voted in January to fire the developers and shut down the project. The new board has retained the services of attorney Thomas Girardi–of Hollywood’s Erin Brockovich fame–to compile a malpractice lawsuit against the school district’s former real estate counsel, O’Melveny and Meyers, arguably the city’s most influential law firm. The blue-chip accounting firm Ernst & Young is one of several corporations accused of either overbilling the school district or “breaching” their “professional duty.” By the time construction was stopped, more than $123 million had already been spent on the school.
Despite all this, many of the city’s most powerful Latino leaders are pushing to resume construction on the site. Belmont has become the flash point in the district’s race to build desperately needed schools. Overcrowding, what educators call “the seat problem,” is at catastrophic proportions in Los Angeles. The district is growing by 15,000 students a year and must add 150 new facilities over the next six years. Most of the growth is a result of the rapid increase of immigrant students from developing countries, primarily Mexico and Central America, many of whom come from families below the poverty level and whose parents often cannot read or write in their native language. These huge demographic shifts were projected but ignored; the district has built only one comprehensive high school since the seventies.