Zacarias and Reiner Spar Over Belmont


Los Angeles schools Supt. Ruben Zacarias fended off a sharp attack Thursday by the chief of the Belmont Learning Complex oversight commission, who asserted that district management is “paralyzed” by the environmentally plagued project.

Ira Reiner, a former Los Angeles County district attorney, questioned whether the district’s staff could be trusted to oversee safety measures at the $200-million high school near downtown if construction is completed.

Reiner cited two cases that he said demonstrate the district’s paralysis.

First, he said, he learned last week that the environmental consulting firm taking measurements at the site had threatened to quit because it had not been paid nearly $2 million owed for services going back to the winter.


Reiner also said he had learned that the Los Angeles Unified School District’s environmental safety team had asked for better monitoring of potentially explosive methane gas around a landfill near Towne Avenue Elementary School in Carson but that the team’s letter was never answered.

“What can be done about the fact the district staff is paralyzed on Belmont?” Reiner asked Zacarias, who was making his first appearance before the commission appointed by the Los Angeles Board of Education to help decide the project’s fate.

“ ‘Paralysis’ is a stretch,” the superintendent responded calmly. “I don’t think the district staff is paralyzed.”

Zacarias said he had not known about either the unpaid bill or the unanswered letter. “I will tell you as I stand here that this is the first time I have heard it,” he said. “I promise you [that] as I leave this room I will be making a phone call.”

In prepared remarks to the commission, Zacarias also asserted his strong support for completing Belmont, as long as the state Department of Toxic Substances Control certifies the district’s plans to make the campus safe.

“Almost a year [ago] to the day, I announced that any school site, whether it be a primary center or a high school for 5,000 students, would require approval from the state,” Zacarias said. “Belmont is no exception to that policy.”


He also introduced two new senior staff appointees, who he said represents new leadership that will not repeat past mistakes that led to the construction of the school over a former oil field without adequate environmental assessment. One will be responsible for Belmont’s construction, the other for the district’s environmental safety, Zacarias said.

“These are different times now,” he said. “We have different players.”

The superintendent appeared at the meeting in response to Reiner’s complaint last week that no one responsible for the project would come forward to advocate its completion.

Zacarias denied any reluctance to answer the commission’s questions. He said he was not asked until this week.

The superintendent said he would not support completing the project if the cost is too high.

“You can’t just say it’s open-ended, whatever it takes,” he said. “You could reach a point where you could build three schools for the price of this one. There has to be some cutoff point. What it is I don’t know.”

Zacarias also declined to promise that students would be free to go to another school if their parents were concerned about Belmont’s safety.


“Suppose 90% of the parents say I want my kids out of here. What do we do with the school?” he asked.

Citing his previous experience as a teacher at the current Belmont High School, he said, “I honestly don’t see a mass exodus.”

Afterward, one commissioner said he was impressed with Zacarias’ apparent command of the situation but still wanted a more detailed explanation of the district’s management competence.

“Tell us specifically what ends you’re willing to go to to assure us and the community that this oversight problem is not going to be the Achilles’ heel of the project,” said David Beckman, chief counsel for the National Resources Defense Council.