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The design of L.A. Unified's new arts high school is convoluted and costly

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"What is it?" Kelly Charles asked as he walked to his job as a custodian in downtown Los Angeles and gazed up at a rather odd construction project. "A roller coaster?"

As I wandered the neighborhood, other guesses were:

A ski jump.

A toboggan run.

A water slide.

What's got everyone talking is the odd-looking tower that rises 140 feet above the 101 Freeway, directly across from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The futuristic metallic edifice, with a wraparound spiral Dr. Seuss would love, is not part of a theme park. It is the signature adornment on a new arts-oriented public high school that will cost roughly $230 million.

That's far more than the going rate for a more conventional school, but district officials argue that they already owned the site of the former L.A. Unified headquarters. Sure, but aren't these tough times for public schools? Aren't school districts facing huge cuts? Aren't many aging schools in disrepair?

You have to wonder how this will sit with parents who are being asked to contribute several hundred dollars per student to cover programs and staff members that tax dollars used to fund.

David Tokofsky, a former school board member, said he isn't opposed to a bit of a flair on an arts-oriented campus. But given all the budget problems -- not to mention the flailing administration of L.A. Supt. and Navy Adm. David L. Brewer -- the project "just looks like an absurdity," in Tokofsky's words.

Personally, I thought the big log flume was the latest improvement on the disastrous employee payroll system in L.A. Unified. Weekly pay could be sent down the chutes to teachers below, and whatever cash doesn't blow over Chinatown or fly into Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's belfry could be pocketed by teachers.

Come to think of it, stringing a tightrope from the school tower to the cathedral wouldn't be a bad idea. Priests and administrators accused of wrongdoing or coverups could creep across the treacherous divide. Those who land safely in the cathedral's reflecting pool shall be considered saved.

Tokofsky said he likes thinking of the school as the admiral's ark, since Brewer seems to be collecting two of everything as his administration takes on water.

"He's got two superintendents now," Tokofsky said, counting Brewer and the recent hire of ex-superintendent Ramon Cortines, who seems to be taking the tiller while Admiral Aloof re-reads his tattered copy of the book "Good to Great."

"And he's got two general counsels," Tokofsky went on.

We've got two school districts too, I said, if you count the mini-district Brewer spun off to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. And there also seem to be at least two consulting contracts for every problem.

In defense of Brewer, whose name is on a project sign that says "Your School Bond Funds at Work," Arts High was cooked up long before he arrived on the scene.

In fact, The Times reported in 2003 that an ordinary high school with a no-frills budget was being planned until philanthropist Eli Broad lobbied school officials to "redesign the Grand Avenue campus into an elaborate visual and performing arts school" with "a soaring tower." The Times went on to say that it would "cost taxpayers at least $18 million extra and delay construction by a year."

The Times reported that Broad had a behind-the-scenes role in the redesign and the selection of an Austrian architectural firm, and our crack team of reporters noted that the snazzy new high school would nicely complement the Grand Avenue revival that was one of Broad's babies.

Broad denied exerting undue influence over the use of public funds back then, saying he was only trying to help the district build a marquee campus. But the cost of the project has gone from $30 million in 2001 for the standard-issue high school to roughly $200 million more for the new-and-improved version seven years later. The tower rises from a 950-seat performing arts theater, and this part of the project alone is priced at $49 million.

I got a tour of the site Friday morning, with school district officials and architect Karolin Schmidbaur serving as my escorts. The tower calls out and engages the city, Schmidbaur said, asking students and adults to indulge their imaginations.

"It's a symbol," she said, "for dynamic thinking."

If that's the case, I suggest they use the box at the top of the tower as Brewer's new office. Maybe a bird will fly by and tell Admiral Aloof that his job is to educate 700,000 children as if each were his own. That means he's got to inspire teachers, torpedo the deadwood and smack down anyone who stands in his way.

Speaking of the tower, my escorts all seemed to think it would be a good idea for me to climb the rickety staircase to the top. It made me wonder if Mahony was in on a deal to have them push me down the chute and straight into the tomb he's reserving for me in the cathedral catacombs.

The view's not bad up there and, to be honest, the artist's renderings of the arts high school don't look bad. When the school opens in fall of 2009, whether you love or hate the look of it, you're going to talk about it, especially when night falls and it's lit like a beacon.

I don't dismiss the value of investing in a school as a work of public art -- even if it's just a bathtub short of looking like the board game Mouse Trap.

But given the district's budget problems and the extreme needs of roughly 700,000 students, most of whom are poor enough to qualify for reduced-price lunches, a pricey jewel in the glittering Grand Avenue necklace is a badly timed extravagance.

I think I came up with a solution, though, while standing 140 feet off the ground and doing some dynamic thinking of my own.

Can you hear me out there, Mr. Broad?

Reach for the checkbook, pal. At the very least, I'm asking $49 million for the roller coaster.

Or come up with $230 million and we'll call it Eli High.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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