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Judge halts new Echo Park school

Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Friday halted construction of an Echo Park elementary school, saying that the Los Angeles Unified School District acted in bad faith by putting together a shoddy environmental review.

Judge John A. Torribio’s decision to nullify the district’s review is a major setback.

The district will have to consider other sites and gather community opinions before moving forward. That could take months and delay opening of the $60-million school, which was expected in 2010.

School district officials are considering an appeal, district associate general counsel Michelle Meghrouni said.

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“We are comfortable that we complied” with the law,” she said. She added that district demographers insist the school is still needed, despite plummeting enrollment at nearby campuses.

Friday’s decision marks the second time that the Right Site Coalition, a small community group on a shoestring budget, has beaten L.A. Unified. Christine Peters, head of the opposition, said she was almost too tired to cheer.

“I just feel like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill,” said Peters, who has financed a significant portion of the fight, once charging $6,000 on her credit card for a district report. The $50,000 her group has raised through garage sales, silent auctions and $100 individual contributions has not been enough to cover the costs.

For four years, Peters and others have argued against the proposed site on Alvarado Boulevard, complaining that it would displace dozens of low-income residents during a period of gentrification.

Board members were not swayed and moved forward with the 875-seat school.

The group sued, saying that the district’s fast-track environmental study was inadequate. Undeterred, the district bought the homes and businesses on the site while defending itself against the lawsuit, which it lost in December 2006. Superior Court Judge Daniel S. Pratt ordered the school system to complete a full environmental impact report to address safety and traffic concerns, including the question of whether a planned street closure next to a fire station would delay emergency response.

The district produced a longer report and the Board of Education approved it. L.A. Unified hired a firm to bulldoze the homes and businesses on the 3.3-acre site.

Again, Peters’ group sued and the project was put on hold. The group lost that suit but an appeals court reversed that decision and sent it back to trial.

Pasadena lawyer Robert P. Silverstein has been litigating the case pro bono (the district appealed an earlier court decision to award Silverstein attorney fees). He called the district’s environmental report “a bogus document to give them cover for an illegal decision they had already made.”

In court papers, he accused the school system of failing to address the project’s effects on low-income housing or seriously consider other sites, principally the LAPD’s former Rampart station. In addition, he said, the agency kept changing the project’s attendance boundaries, making its pedestrian safety and traffic analyses out of date before the project was even built.

Among the schools the district initially said it needed to relieve was nearby Rosemont Elementary, which ran on a year-round system to accommodate its 1,500 students. But last fall, the school returned to a traditional September-June schedule amid an enrollment decline of 536 students. The district has changed the schools that the new campus would relieve.

On Friday, Torribio agreed with Silverstein’s criticisms.

“The writ is granted in its entirety,” the judge wrote in a tentative ruling, which he made final at Friday’s hearing in Norwalk. “The district did not act in good faith. . . . “

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evelyn.larrubia@latimes.com


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