LAUSD: Belmont Redux?

David Tokofsky is a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education

Here we go again. Last Tuesday, the school board, by a vote of 6 to 1, cleared the way for the purchase of a 29-story, 928,000-square-foot building on South Beaudry Avenue to house the central staff of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The building is just blocks from the unfinished Belmont Learning Complex. Perhaps the looming symbol of that colossal mistake should serve as a warning to the district to proceed cautiously on its new headquarters.

While great progress has been made to expedite the acquisition of sites, and the design and construction of new schools, LAUSD is in a conundrum over how and where to house the thousands of bureaucrats who oversee the nation's second-largest school district. Everyone agrees that district headquarters must move. Half the staff has been "temporarily" located for the last 10 years in one of the most expensive high-rise office buildings downtown, while the other half sits in woefully inadequate, antiquated buildings on a site the district ultimately wants to use for a new high school.

But before selecting a new administrative home, the district needs to ask some tough questions, which I tried to raise at the time of the vote. Which functions should the central staff continue to manage? How large should the staff be? Which elements should be centralized downtown and which placed in neighborhoods around the city? Where should the headquarters be located? What quality of building is appropriate? And how much should be spent on a new headquarters building, when the district's primary focus is improving school performance?

In a surprisingly brief and largely invisible exercise, district staff proposed a solution, now agreed to by the school board, which considered none of these questions. The move, reminiscent of the Belmont fiasco which also never got full and open public discussion, may well create more problems than it solves.

The building in question is an undistinguished 1970s-vintage office tower called Beaudry Center. The district proposes to obtain it through a complex series of lease and purchase-option transactions that could ultimately cost $180 million. On the surface there is some appeal to this move. The building is big and mostly vacant. It's available. And no one, given the building's looks and ammenities, could accuse LAUSD of buying a Taj Mahal. So what's wrong with the recommendation? Plenty.

For starters, it violates the first axiom of real estate: location. Beaudry Center is isolated from the heart of downtown. Situated on the west side of the Harbor Freeway, it is not convenient to any of the city's rail transportation stops, nor is it within a reasonable distance from other government offices, such as that of the state architect, with whom district officials need to work closely during this period of accelerated school construction. The Beaudry facility would need a massive and expensive overhaul to meet the district's needs. Moreover, it has insufficient parking for the employees it would house, meaning the district would have to lease millions of dollars of additional parking. And where will the public park--and at what cost--when attending a board meeting or visiting an elected representative?

Size matters, too. Beaudry Center is nearly a million square feet, which is far more space than LAUSD occupies in its existing facilities. Perhaps this reveals an ulterior agenda. In its initial effort to consolidate administrative facilities (a noble idea), the district retained the international architectural firm Gensler, which proposed relocating 3,500 employees from five different locations into a single 750,000-square-foot facility. Interim LAUSD Supt. Ramon C. Cortines instead mandated decentralization, eliminating the need for 220,000 square feet of space downtown and allocating it instead to 11 neighborhood "local district" offices to provide services closer to schools. This would seem to leave a downtown need of about 530,000 square feet. Inexplicably, the district is now seeking nearly twice that amount.

But it's more than numbers. LAUSD should evaluate who it needs to house in its headquarters rather than simply focusing on acquiring a vast space. The district must decide which services it will continue to have performed by in-house staff and which it can purchase for less from others. Then it should decide which services should remain downtown and which can be decentralized throughout the community. Without a resolution of these fundamental questions, it is likely the headquarters building will be oversized. If the space is there, it will be filled, and the inefficiencies of a large, remote and vertically integrated bureaucracy will continue to plague the district as it struggles to improve neighborhood schools.

Cynics have noted that Beaudry Center is so unsuitable that it will hamper recruitment and push existing employees out. This, theoretically, could reduce the size of the bureaucratic staff and save taxpayers a bundle. Unfortunately, it would also reduce morale and productivity in an organization made up, generally, of dedicated individuals who need efficient, modern, technologically up-to-date working conditions and all of the moral and spiritual support that our community can provide. Exiling workers into a space described by one prominent downtown property owner as a "parking garage with a few windows" will ultimately make it harder to improve our schools.

It is important to note that LAUSD does have alternatives. One possibility would be to emulate the state of California, which has acquired a number of inexpensive historic buildings on Spring Street and retrofitted them to modern office standards. This effort has resulted in a very low cost of occupancy and, concurrently, has inspired an expansion of residential, cultural and commercial growth in the neglected heart of the city. Or the district could truly downsize and decentralize. Or it could use part or all of the Belmont Learning Complex for administrative offices. This is too big a decision to rush into. We will no doubt read about conflicts of interest in the months ahead.

Progress is being made in pursuit of 82 modern new schools that will be well planned, intelligently located and sturdily built to accommodate projected. The district's headquarters decision should be held to the same high standards, with the board and staff carefully scrutinizing cost and quality as well as the effect, ultimately, on the betterment of public education.

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