The School That Wasn't
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.
The Belmont fiasco "didn't spring out of nowhere," in the words of David Koff, a senior research analyst for the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union, which has been critical of one of the project's developers, Kajima. The scandal emerged from the deal-making ambitions of district employees, their cronies in the business world and school-board members like Victoria Castro, board president at the peak of the scandal, who worked behind the scenes to switch the location of the new school to the Belmont site, which is in her district, and who believed, in Koff's assessment, that the massive Belmont complex would be "a stepping stone" to higher office (she recently ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the State Assembly). More broadly, the board and the district proved systematically unaccountable to the public as they pursued what Koff calls "Belmonster" in the face of mounting environmental and financial problems. The result was not only the squandering of precious resources that belonged to public schools but also an erosion of public trust that the new board is still struggling to recover.
A report by Don Mullinax, LAUSD's Inspector General, released this past fall chronicles the events leading up to the scandal. By August 1989 the Board of Education had approved land acquisition for what was then a plan to build a middle school on an eleven-acre parcel in Temple Beaudry. As early as 1990, the district knew of the dangers there. The Phase I environmental study found that there was "a potential for environmental problems associated with explosive/toxic gases and subsurface soils contamination" from up to thirty-four improperly abandoned oil wells dating from the late nineteenth century, underground oil tanks built in the forties that might have leaked into the soil and groundwater, and paved surfaces under which hazardous waste, solvents and paints were stored. The state's Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources gave "a bleak picture of the Temple/Beaudry site" to district managers and to O'Melveny and Meyers counsel David Cartwright. Cartwright himself noted in a letter the state's opinion that "the Temple/Beaudry site is not fit for any construction."