School Board Expected to Vote Today on New Campus--Unless Court Steps In

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The Los Angeles Board of Education is set to vote on the controversial Belmont Learning Center project this afternoon, unless the teachers union is successful this morning in a last-minute bid to get a judge to block the action.

The proposed downtown high school has run into a firestorm of criticism over the past week, ever since the board disclosed plans to help build it with more than $40 million from the recently passed $2.4-billion local school bond measure, Proposition BB.

United Teachers-Los Angeles has joined with the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, which has long opposed the choice of developer for the project, in filing suit in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging that the district violated laws requiring competitive bids by entering an exclusive negotiation with one developer.

Filed Friday, the suit seeks a temporary restraining order preventing any school board vote on a contract to build the 3,600-student school until the matter can be heard in court.

If the issue does come before the school board today, district insiders believe it will be approved, particularly under the latest proposal to leave financing details to a future meeting. Board President Jeff Horton had promised last Thursday that bond funds would not be used on the project, then Friday said he was no longer sure of that after learning that other financing would cost at least $3 million a year more.

School board member David Tokofsky said he would try to table the proposal, but added, "I think they'll pass it, without detailing the financing, and then six months from now explain why [using Proposition] BB money is better. All the fees and costs and price [of building the school] will be high and it won't matter."

Tokofsky has opposed the project from the beginning, and has been particularly critical in recent months as estimated construction costs rose to at least $87 million--up from an original estimate of $60 million--and plans to attract a joint venture including shops and housing have remained elusive.

The $2.4-billion school bond measure was passed with the use of a two-tiered campaign. For inner-city residents, the message was that the money would go toward new school construction and repairs, while those in the suburbs were told repeatedly about the repairs and improvements their campuses would receive.

Then, when the problem-plagued downtown project was the first major construction item mentioned--coming just days after the bond passed--those in the outlying areas objected loudly.

Also, a special bond oversight committee was initially told by the district it would not be allowed to review plans for the Belmont Learning Center in advance of today's scheduled board vote. But within hours of that initial refusal, the district reversed itself, scheduling a meeting for last Friday at which oversight panelists were briefed on the project.

Steven Soboroff, Mayor Richard Riordan's appointee to that panel, has said that while the project looks good, and would be an appropriate use of bond money, the district ought to renegotiate for a lower price now that many aspects of the development appear to have fallen away.

The district's development officials have said a vote is urgent because of a Tuesday contract deadline, after which district officials have said the developer--Kajima International--could pull out. But longtime critics of the project question the validity of that deadline, pointing out that the original exclusive negotiation contract with Kajima actually lapsed at the end of January and was never formally renewed by the school board.

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