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Bonds Not for New School, Official Says

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Faced with a strong public outcry, the president of the Los Angeles Board of Education said he would ask his colleagues not to dip into funds from the recently passed bond measure, Proposition BB, to pay for a new downtown high school.

Hundreds of angry phone calls have poured into the board offices since Monday’s disclosure that the first expenditure from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s $2.4-billion repair and construction bond could pay for half of the Belmont Learning Center complex.

“I’m surprised at the reaction of people because it was very clear to the board all along that this was an option,” said board President Jeff Horton. “But we don’t want to start the bond expenditures with a lot of misunderstanding and ill feeling.”

Horton said he would propose Monday that the board approve the school project, but return to backup plans to obtain a loan. He noted that the loan would have to be repaid from the district’s general fund at interest rates higher than those expected for the bonds.

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The district expects to spend more than $40 million on the school. With matching funds from the state, the total cost of building the campus would be about $87 million to $100 million, ranking it among California’s most expensive high schools.

But the controversy over the last two days centered not on that cost but on whether voters who gave the bond its required two-thirds approval realized that some of the bounty would be spent on the 3,600-student school, planned for Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue. Aware of the potential fallout from approving the controversial project shortly before the bond vote, the school board decided last month to delay its consideration of the high school until after the election.

Mayor Richard Riordan, who criticized the proposal to use bond funds for the school, said Wednesday: “The problem is that going for Belmont out of the first money from [Proposition] BB was not in my mind and not in the public’s mind. Repairs. That’s what the main emphasis was, what the voters voted on.”

Campaign brochures about the school bond tended to emphasize the $600 million in repairs it would finance, along with new computers and school expansions to reduce class size. Some literature indicated that an additional $900 million would be used for new construction, but none specifically mentioned the new high school.

However, district officials point out that the bond “bible"--a thick book detailing most of the projects planned for the next decade--includes the 3,600-student school.

Members of the oversight panel created by the bond will be briefed on the project Friday morning, after initially requesting a one-week postponement of Monday’s vote. The district maintains the project does not need approval of the panel, but agreed to the briefing out of fear that any further delay could scare off the developer.

The most recent negotiating contract with developer Kajima International expires Tuesday, said Dominic Shambra, the district’s development director.

Riordan’s appointee to the oversight panel, real estate consultant Steven Soboroff, said he sees the group’s mission as not to debate the need for the Belmont Learning Center, but rather its cost and whether it should be a priority. Soboroff was appointed to the oversight committee by Riordan as part of a compromise that won the mayor’s support for the project, which was considered an important factor in the bond’s passage.

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“Clearly [Proposition] BB allows money to be spent to build new schools,” he said. “But to do it without the bond’s oversight is not the right kind of cloud to throw over this process seven days after the vote.”

At Monday’s board meeting, district officials had acknowledged the campus’ high cost, but noted that it also is unique. It includes wiring for technology, a cluster of separate buildings to house academies intended to make the school seem smaller and space for a commercial development that has not yet materialized.

From the beginning, controversy has dogged the choice of Kajima International to build the campus. The Japan-based developer won the right to enter exclusive negotiations with the district nearly two years ago on a promise to provide financing, retail stores and low-income housing for the project. However, since then those promises have not panned out: The financing proved too expensive, retail stores have not come through, and the amount of housing has been reduced.


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