The School That Wasn't
Fernando Contreras also feels betrayed by the political process around Belmont. As he and his brother John survey the ruins of their old home on Boylston Street above the Belmont site, Contreras remembers being surprised when the Board of Education approved the massive Belmont complex. Turmoil disrupted the area. In 1997, six streets were closed and property was condemned or claimed under eminent domain. The Contreras home was among those demolished. Even the neighborhood parish, Holy Rosary Church, where Contreras led an antigang youth group, was razed despite the protests of congregation members. Contreras left the neighborhood. "I couldn't deal with Belmont," he says. "This is where we barbecued and my kids rode their bikes. Tornadoes, earthquakes and gang members didn't drive me out. Belmont did."
To Contreras the issue is not the environmental hazards on the school site but throughout the whole neighborhood, which rests atop an area once teeming with oil wells. He and his brother recount tales of relatives who died suddenly from burst blood vessels, of children born with disabilities, of their own childhoods filled with diseases, like whooping cough, that "people don't get anymore." When Contreras was 10, he got sick playing on the field where Belmont now stands and went home with a high fever. "My whole body peeled like a snake. They told me it was scarlet fever." As kids, when they got off the bus from school near the corner of Temple and Bolyston, the current Belmont site, the "fumes were so strong, we used to hold our noses and run home." Contreras testified before the board against the project. He says he understands a school is needed in his old neighborhood, but "it's not worth the kids' getting sick." If the project does get built, he says, echoing last June's report of the LAUSD School Safety Team, "you don't know what's going to happen twenty, thirty years from now. You don't know the long term. What good is an education if you get cancer in ten years?"
It is Soto's position, not Contreras's, that is reflected in the public stance of many of the city's Latino leaders, who assert, in the words of Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, "These are our kids." Hernandez says that MALDEF is contemplating a lawsuit against the district. City Council member Mike Hernandez, County Supervisor Gloria Molina, State Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa, who is running for mayor in next year's election, and Congressman Xavier Becerra, also a mayoral candidate, are the loudest voices pushing to revive the project. Molina recently offered the district a million dollars in public appropriations to pay for further environmental tests, and Villaraigosa has also lobbied for state funding for such tests. Molina, along with Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, argued in a recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed that "there is simply no justification to support abandoning the Belmont Learning Complex" and that the board's action "doomed thousands and thousands of young people to an inadequate education."
Yet according to an April Times poll, there is an apparent disconnect between these leaders and the rest of the Latino community: The survey found that a majority of residents in the part of the district near the school support the decision to kill the project. The only area where a majority favor completing Belmont is the San Fernando Valley, because residents don't want Belmont kids bused to already overcrowded schools there.
In March, Howard Miller, newly appointed chief operating officer of the district, presented more than five new possible sites in the Belmont neighborhood to provide seats for at least 7,000 students. The advantage of these sites, Miller asserts, is not only that they are cleaner than Belmont but the construction can be funded out of recently approved bond money instead of the general funds the district used to pay for Belmont--millions drained from teacher salaries, student supplies and other critical budget items. The other sites also reflect the growing trend away from huge, warehouselike structures and toward smaller, more neighborhood-friendly campuses. But the process of building new schools with bond money has been plagued with delays, in part because of longstanding problems in the district's financial systems. In response, Miller has threatened to call in the Army Corps of Engineers to help the district build the schools it needs.
The Belmont scandal has finally focused needed attention on the problem of overcrowding in LA public schools. This year MALDEF, along with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, joined a lawsuit challenging state school spending practices as unconstitutional. The state's "first come, first serve" funding system ignores the crying need for new schools in urban areas like LA, in order "to build empty schools for imaginary kids" in suburban and exurban areas, as lead attorney Connie Rice puts it. Rice argues that the same kind of backroom deal-making between public officials and developers that went into the Belmont mega-complex operates at the state level, preventing needed schools from being built. (The sad irony is that the LA school district actually failed to apply for its share of state bond money. Nearly half of those funds have already been spent elsewhere.)
For the past fifteen years, instead of expanding available school facilities, LAUSD has coped by putting nearly a third of LA's schools on a year-round schedule, increasing capacity by forcing up to three sets of students to use the same classrooms on staggered schedules. But the district is about to run out of even recycled seats. If 150 schools aren't built in six years, the macabre joke goes, students, bused to less crowded campuses, might simply ride all day because there will be nowhere for them to go.