The School That Wasn't
Yet the school district persisted in its plans, continuing with further environmental analysis. Despite concerns about safety, the district managed to get state approval for its "mitigation and monitoring plan" and even received state funds, which it used to acquire the eleven acres in 1993. Soon after, facing mounting pressure to accommodate thousands of new students--and driven by its own ambitions to develop a project expected to generate millions in retail sales--the district purchased an additional twenty-four acres for $30 million in state money.
Former kindergarten supervisor Dominic Shambra, who was overseeing the project, rushed it through the environmental review process. Once all the parcels were in place, the district publicly revealed its new development scheme, a massive, multi-use project including a high school, affordable housing, community space and up to 78,700 square feet for retail. In 1995 a staff "evaluation team" recommended Temple Beaudry Partners as the developer on the deal--a firm in which Kajima, a multimillion-dollar client of the district's own real estate counsel, O'Melveny and Meyers, is a partner. The winning proposal was the most expensive presented to the district, projecting nearly $114 million in costs. Shambra called it the "Cadillac" among competitors. The agreement struck by LAUSD with the project developer shifted the costs for "hazardous material remediation" to the school district and indemnified the developers against any claims arising from these materials. And it contained none of the escape clauses customary in contractor agreements.
The district broke ground on the Belmont site in June 1997. Environmental problems continued to plague construction. The developer was informed by a state agency in March 1998 that pockets of highly explosive methane gas existed throughout the Belmont site and were not, as believed, limited to certain areas. This report was buried by the developer. Six months later the same agency informed the school district about the methane discovery.
Last spring, the California state legislature convened hearings on the Belmont development. They concluded that LAUSD may have violated various laws and that the state could "pursue feasible civil and criminal actions against offending individuals." Finally, in January 2000, the newly elected board voted to kill Belmont, citing the combined environmental and financial problems, the absence of guarantees of environmental mitigation and the "wildly varied" estimates for toxic remediation, from $10 million to $60 million. In April of this year, state and city attorneys found that there was no evidence to pursue criminal indictments relating to Belmont's environmental problems. The US Attorney's office has yet to announce its decision. It remains to be seen what these agencies find regarding the accusations of financial malfeasance.
The school that was to be replaced by the new construction stands on a steep incline in the collection of hills west of downtown, surrounded by dilapidated apartment buildings. Aging cars in need of paint jobs line the curbs. The hood yawns on a rusted barbecue grill. Across the street, a yellow fire hydrant leaks water. In the morning air, as school begins, a rooster crows persistently.
The main building on the current campus was constructed in 1923. Along with more recent additions, it inadequately houses 4,888 mostly Latino and Asian students. Another 2,653 students from the area are bused out, 1,000 voluntarily to attend magnet schools, the remainder because Belmont doesn't have space for them. It's commonly said that Belmont, like a lot of other schools in LAUSD, is so crowded that the kids have to walk down the halls sideways. That's folklore. The atmosphere at Belmont is calm, even friendly, as students move to their first-period classes. It is, in some ways, like any other high school, filled with goofy laughter, boys and girls walking in same-sex clumps and the hollow-sounding voice of the principal echoing through the public address system. A closer look reveals signs of neglect: padlocks and chains on the tables and benches in the lunch area, exposed plumbing, peeling paint and coatings of grime over every surface.
Gloria Soto is the mother of a current student and an alum of Belmont. A school-district employee, Soto is a leader of the vocal group agitating to resume construction on the new site. She sits in the campus Parent Center, an expansive speaker and obviously effective politician. Soto says that when former district officials "showed us plans for a modern school, there was a lot of excitement. The vision that was brought to us was unexpected. We said, Wow, to be able to have this kind of thing in our community." But, Soto adds, "little did we know how much is involved in building a new school. LAUSD, parents, nobody had real, true experience at this kind of complex. But we felt we were pioneering into the future. And the need was there."
Not only did the construction promise a desperately needed new school that would act as a magnet for area development, but Soto's group worked with the district through a longstanding program to provide apprenticeships on the site. "We got people hired before they even began construction," she says, and eventually trained seventy-five people at $10 an hour, some of whom went on to permanent jobs in the industry.
Soto believes that the environmental problems on the new site can be "mitigated," a word that comes up often when people talk about reviving Belmont. Her complaints aren't just about the lack of a new high school; the "new board members are not as inclusive as previous board members," she finds. "I expected to have had more dialogue and more background into what has happened." And, she believes, politicians "used Belmont as a political platform. And that was painful to this community."