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An Education in Expansion

Times Staff Writer

Using a combination of aggressive real estate negotiations, political gamesmanship and eminent domain, the Los Angeles Unified School District is scooping up hundreds of acres of land in a $14-billion campus building program that will result in enough new classroom seats to fill Dodger Stadium three times over.

When the program is completed in 2012, officials say, they will be close to ending overcrowding in the district, boosting academic performance and remaking neighborhoods. Some call it the largest public works project in the western United States -- possibly rivaled in the nation only by Boston’s $14.6-billion highway tunnel project known as the “Big Dig.”

In an area where open space is scarce, schools are being built on formerly vacant commercial lots, in industrial zones and on residential plots. About 1,200 families and 400 businesses have been displaced so far.

“The impact on this town is monumental,” said schools Supt. Roy Romer. “It is literally going to change the face of Los Angeles.”

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Construction sites are springing up from San Fernando to Lomita, glossy architectural designs adorning chain-link fences. The angular, contemporary buildings will have inner courtyards, spacious classrooms and some community centers.

For many in the city, it is a marked contrast to the monolithic campus facilities that predominate in the district, where students compete for space in schools designed to hold half their numbers.

In some areas where new schools are taking shape, residents express guarded optimism about the building project, tempered only by concerns about how the new campuses will change their neighborhoods.

“It’s a wait-and-see situation,” said Mary Gonzales, a retired district educational aide whose Arleta home of 32 years looks out onto a high school scheduled to open next year. She said she worries about the traffic the campus will generate.

For a long time, the lot across the street from her house was vacant; a former retailer abandoned the site years ago. Today, the 12.6-acre property is a dusty construction zone surrounded by chain link and cinder blocks. A drawing of the school posted on the fence shows that it will be lined with trees and will have a central courtyard, an 8-acre playing field and underground parking.

“We do need more schools,” Gonzales said. “It’s just too bad it has to be in front of our house.”

The campuses are coming so fast that the district barely has time to name them. Many projects carry unwieldy titles: Central Los Angeles New Learning Center No. 1, on the site of the Ambassador Hotel; Central Los Angeles Area New High School No. 9, where district headquarters once stood on Grand Avenue downtown; South Los Angeles Area New High School No. 1, the former Santee Dairy.

But as the massive construction project gathers steam, district officials worry that they have exhausted the large, open lots left in the area. Though the district avoided taking large numbers of homes in the first building phase, these officials say they probably won’t have that luxury for much longer.

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They refused to disclose how many homes could be taken in the next building phases, saying only that they will need to be “creative” about locating new properties.

“It doesn’t get any easier as we go down the road,” said James McConnell, who left a job in the Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps to serve as the district’s chief facilities executive. “The sites are getting smaller and getting very expensive.”

The district will be flexible in switching old and new campuses to handle different grade levels as the need and demographics require. Ten years from now, for example, officials could determine that a neighborhood might be served better by a high school than a middle school.

The district hasn’t been in the business of erecting schools for years. Most campuses were built before 1960, and for decades, they mostly sufficed. Then, in the 1980s, district enrollment began to swell past capacity.

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Board members and administrators resorted to increasing class sizes, adding temporary bungalows on playgrounds, instituting mandatory busing in some areas and placing many campuses on year-round calendars. These were regarded as solutions to the enrollment increases, avoiding the need for the school board to undertake costly -- and potentially politically damaging -- construction projects.

And they proved temporary.

“That didn’t fix it,” said Julie Korenstein, who has served on the school board since 1987. “It was like a Band-Aid on cancer.”

Hindered by state laws that officials said made it difficult to raise funds for new schools, L.A. Unified borrowed money to build a few elementary campuses and a couple of magnet high schools. But the district lacked the funds to build the large number of additional schools it needed.

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In 1996, the district attempted to persuade voters to approve a $2-billion bond issue; it failed. Six months later, voters were asked to reconsider, and Proposition BB passed overwhelmingly.

But the district’s plans fell short -- in part because of mismanagement of bond money, and in part because officials had not sought adequate funding.

Former Mayor Richard Riordan pushed the district to build more schools, and board members he supported initiated the current campaign.

Soon after Romer’s arrival in 2000, he realized that building schools was vital to improving test scores and campus conditions for the district’s 700,000-plus students.

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Emboldened by a 2000 law that allowed voters to approve bond measures by only a 55% majority, Romer -- formerly governor of Colorado and chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- said he drew on his own political expertise to push for two more bond issues.

With a broad coalition of supporters that included business, labor and civil rights groups, those measures passed in 2002 and 2004. Other funding came from state bonds.

These days, Romer has a rather concrete view of his district’s endeavors. Beneath his wide-windowed office in the district’s downtown headquarters, dirt mountains rise and fall. Concrete pillars climb skyward. Hundreds of construction workers toil daily.

One of the new schools is the troubled and much-maligned Belmont Learning Complex, resurrected as the newly named Vista Hermosa after years of legal wrangling and environmental concerns. Long a symbol of the district’s inability to build schools, the campus is scheduled to open in 2007.

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A second one is Central Los Angeles Area New High School No. 10, which broke ground last spring. The skeletons of classrooms crowd one corner of the site; nearby, two large gymnasiums are taking shape.

Showing off the two projects outside his window, Romer admits to being “awestruck” by the magnitude of the building project.

“I didn’t understand the size of what I got hold of when I started here,” he said. “I started out saying, ‘Yeah, we’re short of space; we ought to build space.’ And then it began to add, to add, to add. And ... my goodness, look at what the size of this thing has become.”

Some say it was inevitable that the district would be forced into a building program, given the pressures to improve student achievement.

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“Any educational reform efforts coming from the school district

The teachers union supported the bond measures because it also believed that the time had come to build schools.

But John Perez, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents 45,000 teachers currently in contract negotiations, criticized the money spent on the district’s building staff, many of whom are independent contractors or consultants.

“I am sure they are wasting money,” Perez said.

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McConnell, the chief facilities executive, responded that although he welcomed the union’s support of the bond measures, “We don’t look to UTLA to determine how to manage this multibillion-dollar construction program.” He and Romer have defended the hiring of consultants, saying they bring professional expertise to real estate and contract negotiations.

The district is about 1% below its projected construction budget, McConnell said. “I would challenge anyone in the country to match those numbers on a program of that complexity.”

As that program has moved forward, the district has tried to be cautious about where to take homes through its power of eminent domain. For each new school, the district identifies the neighborhoods with the greatest needs and then tries to find an appropriate site that will take the fewest homes.

So far, the district has paid out $38.8 million in moving and relocation expenses to families and businesses forced to move. Most of those families were apartment tenants; about 120 became first-time home buyers after receiving financial settlements.

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District officials say work has begun on all 74 schools in the first phase of their building program. The second phase will include about 34 more campuses and is not far behind. The schools in the first two phases will have about 114,000 seats.

Already, Romer, his staff and board members have begun to consider the third phase of the program: providing about 50,000 more classroom seats. And they are considering a fourth phase. Even after the current building project is complete, the district expects to be about 30,000 elementary school seats short.

It won’t be easy. Romer said the district will be forced to “be much more thoughtful about the sites we pick.”

As district officials negotiate for school properties, they consult community leaders and elected officials, seeking input and support.

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That strategy has had mixed results.

It paid off recently when the board approved a controversial proposal to build three campuses at the site of the historic Ambassador Hotel. The decision followed a divisive fight between preservationists and those pushing for schools in the area.

City Councilman Martin Ludlow said he met regularly with district officials -- including Romer -- as they considered various proposals. Other elected officials also were brought in.

Though the Ambassador schools will take about five years to complete, some new campuses already are relieving overcrowding in the district.

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Sitting at a bus stop down the street from two new campuses in South Gate, Cesar Ortiz, 13, talked about his recently opened school. Before transferring to the campus this fall, he had attended South Gate Middle School, believed to be the most crowded middle school in the country.

The two schools occupy the same 40-acre lot, near a dry cleaner, a beauty supply shop, an auto parts store and a few apartment buildings. Two years ago, the lot was vacant; today, the schools have multistory buildings, auditoriums and sports fields.

“Everything is new,” said Ortiz, wearing his blue-and-white school uniform. “They have science labs ... the lines for lunch are smaller. There are empty seats in classes. I still like the other school, but I like this one better.”


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