The School That Wasn’t

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.


Los Angeles

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.”

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.”

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.

The new board president, Genethia Hayes, has announced that “it’s never going to be business as usual ever again,” and the board has set a heady pace for change. In addition to identifying new school sites, in April it unanimously approved a dramatic restructuring program that would cut nearly half of the district’s 2,000 administrative jobs and set up eleven autonomous, decentralized mini-districts. It expects to hire a new superintendent by June. It recently engaged in contract negotiations with a wary United Teachers of Los Angeles over the issue of tying teacher compensation to student performance, and is implementing a new reading curriculum throughout the district.

The board’s rush for change is seen by many as a long-overdue response to a district in chaos, symbolized by Belmont. For many Latino leaders, however, no matter how many public meetings board and top staff attend, this board’s cards may be on the table, but they’re being dealt from underneath. Some Latino leaders continue to demand that the board pay for a study of the Belmont site by the State Department of Toxic Substances and Control, a study Miller halted after the board ended the Belmont project.

The frustration is justified. Latino students fare worse than others; in addition to overcrowded campuses they have higher dropout rates and lower test scores, higher teen-pregnancy rates and greater incidence of poverty. MALDEF’s Antonia Hernandez speaks of “the feeling of isolation” from the city’s power structure among Latinos. The demand to continue construction on Belmont is not just about overcrowding; it’s about the Latino community asking for the same degree of public investment that other parts of the city enjoy. At the same time, however, low-income Latino neighborhoods are chronically undermobilized and lack the basic civic infrastructure found in other poor communities. As knowledge of the serious environmental risks in the Belmont area grew, some Latino leaders argued that “Belmont can be made safe for our children” because many homes, businesses, and schools in the area stand on the same abandoned oilfields. But no one surveyed the area and investigated the kind of long-term health effects Fernando Contreras believes his family has suffered. No one organized the residents to protect themselves.

For a long time, the Board of Education was the last place expected to be the source of change. Its buildings on Grand Avenue downtown offer a view of Los Angeles at its most staid. To the east, against a backdrop of corporate skyscrapers, cranes are busy on the lavish reconstruction of a cathedral damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. To the north, the grille of lights around Rupert Murdoch’s refurbished Dodger stadium reflects the sunlight. Big money and old leadership surround the mismatched sixties-era buildings housing the board and central staff. But the board’s defiance of the city’s power players belies the appearances here.

Opponents say they feel the new board is not as “responsive” as the previous one. But the old board’s close relationships with powerful members of the community masked an environment in which greed and incompetence flourished despite what current board president Hayes calls “the damage done to children.” LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the country, with a budget of $7.7 billion, bigger than that of the City of Los Angeles. It includes 711,000 students, 67,169 regular, full-time employees, and 650 campuses. Underlying the overcrowding crisis is dismal achievement. More than two-thirds of LA schools ranked at 3 or below, out of a possible 10, on this year’s statewide Academic Performance Index. The API confirmed the suspicions of the new board; even showcase schools that educators believed were beginning to close the gap between inner-city and privileged students are failing. In the words of district COO Miller, speaking from his modest office at board headquarters, “People who say they are most concerned about kids have done them enormous harm by [being] patronizing to them. They didn’t want to hurt them, cause them pain. And they were not giving the kids a chance to succeed. There is this huge feeling that you can’t make urban education work.”

The new board must balance demands for openness and community input with a commitment to both equity and excellence in the school system. According to the recent Times poll, 83 percent of all residents in the district “believe change is possible, offering district officials a potential reservoir of goodwill as they try to implement reform.” LA’s educators are studying the considerable achievements in the neighboring Inglewood school district, made up overwhelmingly of low-income Latino and African-American students. There, test scores equal or rival those of privileged students. If the current LA board succeeds in shifting priorities from serving the greed of bureaucrats to the needs of children, they may help show, as an Inglewood principal put it, “You don’t have to be white and rich to learn.”

In the meantime, what he calls the board’s “tough” stands have surprised Fernando Contreras. He says that Belmont was known as “a Taj Mahal. People called it a cash cow. I call it the Trojan horse because people thought it was a gift but it was the death of my neighborhood. What about the houses around here? They don’t have any mitigation.” Contreras feels that the objections he and others raised weren’t heard because the people who represent the area are bent on keeping the project alive. Contreras stands on the street watching kids play nearby. His brother John leans on a car fender. Contreras gestures up the hill to the ramshackle houses. “Nobody,” he says, “is listening to us.”

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