Private Armenian school wins Glendale suit

A private Armenian school was improperly shut down by Glendale officials, some of whom gave false testimony about events that led to the closure of the campus in 2010, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has ruled.

In the ruling handed down last week, Judge David Milton found that city officials used “increased fees, yellow tagging and other steps” as a “pretext to achieve an unlawful purpose, closing plaintiff's school.”

Milton awarded that school, Scholars Academic Foundation, $135,000 in damages.

City Atty. Mike Garcia said by phone Wednesday that he vehemently disagrees with Milton's decision, but city officials have yet to decide whether to appeal.

“We were pretty shocked by some of these conclusions,” Garcia said.

The debacle began when Scholars Academic Foundation moved from its location at 1021 Grandview Ave. to a former Glendale Unified School District building at 3800 Foothill Blvd. in January 2010 without proper city permits.

The school's principal, Anahit Grigoryan, said during court proceedings that the city's former zoning administrator, Edith Fuentes, said they could operate in the new building if they quickly applied for permits.

That turned out to be an incorrect assessment.

The city sent the kindergarten-to-12th-grade school violation notices but never received a response. In a surprise February 2010 visit, a fire inspector determined the building was unsafe to occupy as a school.

But Milton said the inspector's decision to yellow-tag the building — making it temporarily uninhabitable — was “not supported by the evidence.”

The inspector, Jeffrey Halpert, said the City Council ordered the city attorney to “go after the school,” according to Milton's ruling.

“It's just not true,” Garcia said, contending that Halpert's statement was based on hearsay.

Mayor Frank Quintero also said Wednesday that the City Council did not give those marching orders, but officials take children's safety seriously.

“When it comes to children's safety, it's always important that things get done properly, and that's the bottom line,” he said.

In court documents, city officials said the school had an inadequate fire alarm and locked or blocked exits, prompting the shutdown.

Ron Billing, a city building inspector, testified that the exits were blocked by chairs stacked in a hallway. Additionally, he said, the fire alarm system needed replacement batteries. In an earlier declaration used to support the temporary restraining order that resulted in the school's closure, he said the problems were more severe, claiming, in part, that there was no fire system at all.

Billing, who has been in Glendale for 10 years, “did not display the level of knowledge, expertise, objectivity or veracity expected from a government official,” Milton wrote, noting Billing acknowledged that the 2010 declaration was partially false.

The judge added that some witnesses, including Fuentes, were “not candid during all court proceedings due to fear of retaliation” by the city.

The school moved to several other locations after being shut down. It is now operating in Los Angeles, although it has lost all but roughly 25 of its original 300 students.

“Our client was fully and completely vindicated,” said Richard Foster, the school's attorney. “As demonstrated by the decision, the city's misconduct was outrageous, dishonest and prevalent, reaching to the highest levels.”

Foster added that the school plans to ask a judge to require the city to pay its attorney's fees.

A financial analyst testified that over 10 years, the school could have made $2.75 million. Milton divided that to cover the first six months after the building was yellow-tagged.

Garcia disagreed with the monetary damages, adding that the city's decisions did not constitute a “taking” of property because they did not deprive the owners of economically viable use of their property.

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