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Board Should Go to School

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You know you’re in really big trouble when you are forced to turn to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for advice on how to award contracts.

That is the unenviable and perhaps unique position that the Los Angeles Board of Education finds itself in this week. First, it hired a firm to do background checks on the construction partnerships vying for contracts spurred by the city’s newest cash cow: the $2.4-billion school bond measure known as Proposition BB. Said firm, Keyser Marston Associates, somehow failed to dig up what any high school student could have found in old copies of The Times at the local library branch--that some of the partnerships on the inside track for lucrative school renovation and repair contracts have tainted histories.

What kind of histories? Widely publicized charges of overbilling, unreasonable bonuses, political favors and influence peddling and undisclosed settlements with the MTA over some of those charges. The last MTA chief executive quit in the midst of rancor created by such matters, and the MTA instituted procedural changes to prevent further problems.

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Similar changes now should be embraced by the school board, such as requiring bidders to disclose past lawsuits, investigations or other official findings related to previous work. And an idea pressed by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) doesn’t sound too bad: The school district could use a full-time inspector general--preferably with construction experience--for its BB funds.

To be sure, not every firm that has done business with the MTA is out to pad its corporate pockets with easy money. But the school board should realize what’s at stake here. It’s darned hard to get any bond measure passed these days. Just look at Orange County’s 61%-to-39% rejection last November of badly needed funds for new jail space.

The BB victory put the L.A. school board under a spotlight, and its members should have been aware that the mere mention of firms with MTA connections could set off klaxons.

Unless the board members want to ensure that voters never again support a school bond measure, they should behave like well-informed professionals, not the pushovers they surely appeared to be this week.

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