Romer Unveils Plan for Smaller High School at Belmont Site

Times Staff Writers

Parents and school board members are divided over a plan Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer publicly unveiled Tuesday to sell off the unfinished buildings at the Belmont Learning Complex that are above a methane field and a fault line and to build a smaller replacement high school on safer portions of the property.

The proposal, which also would require the district to buy land and build another high school less than two miles away, would cost $150 million in addition to the $175 million already spent on the troubled project. Romer estimated that the school district might recoup about $34 million for the piece of the Belmont property near downtown it wants to sell.

Romer had sought the completion of what was to be a 3,600-student school and the mitigation of underground gases from old oil wells there until December, when an earthquake fault was discovered under part of the project.

On Tuesday, he said he is resigned to the fact that the high school as originally envisioned is unsalvageable and that only a 1,500-student campus is feasible there. That could take four years, he said.

"I kind of made it my mission to get Belmont going," Romer said. "But the earthquake problem cut that short. I'm a realist."

Some local parents welcomed news that two new high schools may be added to the neighborhoods west of the Harbor Freeway. But given the project's tortuous history, they also expressed skepticism about the school district's ability to deliver.

Lupe Mendoza-Fernandez thinks Romer's plan is "the logical thing to do." But she was not getting her hopes up. Her three children were supposed to go to a new Belmont complex -- but all had to attend the old, and still operating, Belmont High School nearby. She doubts a new neighborhood school will ever benefit her children, the youngest of whom is in ninth grade.

"It's still not built," she said. "None of my children will ever get to see a new Belmont at the rate that things are done at LAUSD."

Romer made a public presentation Tuesday night to about 200 parents and community leaders at Gratts Elementary School near the construction site. Afterward, the meeting turned rowdy as speakers took to the microphone and debated the proposal.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina criticized Romer at the gathering.

"I'm angry because I have been sitting here listening to you and I don't want you to bamboozle this community," Molina said. She added that more studies are needed to examine the severity of the seismic fault to see if the original plan for the site can proceed.

Romer expects to present his plan next month to the Board of Education, where he may face a tough sell. Some school board members said Tuesday that his proposal is the best of a bad set of options, while others think it's time to sell the entire Belmont property.

"I continue to feel very strongly about my opposition because of the methane and hydrogen sulfite," among other environmental concerns, said school trustee Julie Korenstein. "I'm not convinced this is the proper place to have a school -- on top of an oil field."

Romer said he would seek to sell the unfinished Belmont buildings on the eastern side of the property close to the Harbor Freeway and construct a new high school building on a 14-acre bedrock portion west of the fault. Selling off the entire property, he said, would only create more difficulties and additional expenses in finding new land. And trying to retrofit the buildings also would be too expensive, because state rules limiting K-12 schools' proximity to fault lines are very strict.

The district is required to offer to sell the unfinished buildings and 21 acres to other public agencies before putting the property on the open market. Romer said he has already contacted higher education officials about the proposal. The superintendent says parkland or housing might replace the structures.

School officials would also try to acquire property near Vermont Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard for another high school. Together the two schools would have a total enrollment of 2,600 students, 1,000 less than the original Belmont Complex would have had. Romer said additional space would be provided by three other schools planned in downtown or the Wilshire corridor.

Any underground methane and hydrogen sulfite at the former oil field will be relatively easy to overcome at the replacement Belmont school, Romer said, because "we're designing it from scratch."

In 1999, the half-completed project was stopped because of concerns about toxic underground gases. The school buildings then sat partly wrapped in plastic, a continuing embarrassment to the district.

Last year, Romer won approval for an $80-million plan for a venting system, but as exploration was going forward, engineers discovered the small fault line directly under the complex.

Romer said he would bring his proposal before the seven-member Board of Education on April 8, two months before at least two newly elected trustees take office. He said the election had nothing to do with his timing.

Three board members -- Jose Huizar, Marlene Canter and Genethia Hudley-Hayes -- said they are open to Romer's proposal as long as environmental concerns are addressed.

"If in fact it turns out that site is safe on those 12 acres, why wouldn't we build a school?" said Hudley-Hayes, who lost her bid for reelection.

In addition to Korenstein, two others are opposed. School board President Caprice Young, who also was voted out of office, said she too wants to sell the entire site and look for new school properties elsewhere.

David Tokofsky, who may face a runoff in his reelection bid, opposed the Belmont project from the start. "Nobody's changed my view about the safety and the star-crossed nature of this project," he said.

The potential swing vote, Mike Lansing, who won reelection, said he would not voice an opinion until Romer presented more details.

Whatever the district decides, it will confront many questions from the neighborhood, said Hector Villagra, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has advocated for new schools.

"I think the fear from the community is that this will be yet another attempt to try to sell the community on something, and later the district will not deliver on it," Villagra said. "I think what the community most wants out of this site is a safe school as quickly as possible."

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