When it comes to making the massive improvements needed at the Los Angeles Unified School District, Superintendent Roy Romer will enter 2001 pressed up against a wall.

Though it may seem like an insurmountable task to some, Romer is not among them. That's a good thing because the former Colorado governor and his administration will be tackling tough labor negotiations with teachers, a new round of questions concerning the controversial half-built Belmont Learning Center, and an all-out hunt for real estate to be used for classroom space.

There won't be much tangible development on the school construction front in the new year, but the district intends to put a growth strategy in place and identify many of the sites administrators hope to build on or move into.

Romer said the district is in various stages of acquisition on a handful of sites, some in the architectural design phase, others in the environmental investigation phase. Among those sites is the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power building in Sun Valley.

David Abel, a member of LAUSD's Proposition BB committee overseeing disbursement of construction bond funds, said finding space, money and time for as many as 100 schools is a Herculean task that will take at least a decade.

Although there won't be much to look at in terms of actual building in 2001, Abel said he believes the foundation of a construction campaign will be laid, including choosing school sites and performing environmental reviews. That assumes Romer is able to bring about changes in the facilities department, which is now under close scrutiny by the state, in part, due to the district's mishandling of Belmont.

The now-infamous half-finished high school built on a toxin-laden former oil field, has preoccupied school administrators and attorneys for more than 18 months. The school board voted in January to stop construction on its one-time school of the future and now wants to sell the site, which sits atop a potentially volatile bed of methane and hydrogen sulfide.

Estimates project the district could make as much as $87 million by selling the property, which has already eaten up $143 million in LAUSD funds.

In a move that raised the hackles of some school board members who have vowed never to let students attend classes at the troubled school, Romer recently asked for more information about what it would take in money and time to cleanup and finish the sorely-needed project.

Romer also said he hasn't lost sight of academics, pointing out that the district will forge ahead with new programs to boost scores in reading and math.

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, the subject of considerable speculation within LAUSD after announcing he would help Romer incorporate computers into classrooms, said the phonics-based Open Court program will raise reading, writing and math scores for the district's kindergarten through third-grade students. Riordan said the program boosted scores in Inglewood Unified School District by 20 percent.

"The bad news is the improvement is only in years up to third grade," Riordan said. "Beyond that is going to be much more difficult."

None of the district's 711,000 students will be learning much, though, if teachers strike early in the year.

Riordan warned that a strike would be "the stupidest thing (teachers) ever did," causing a backlash among parents and the public at large.

However, United Teachers of Los Angeles President Day Higuchi said the union has a scheduled strike date, Feb. 27, and teachers are prepared to walk off the job if no progress is made. The union, which represents 40,000 teachers, delayed a strike that was originally set for September.

The crux of the negotiations is salary. The teachers want an 18.8 percent hike this year. Romer has offered a 20 percent increase over three years. Another issue is union resistance to the administration's plan to assign experienced teachers to underperforming classrooms.

Romer declined to discuss negotiations with the teachers, but he was eager to define Riordan's role in LAUSD as that of a volunteer. The superintendent said Riordan, who leaves office at the end of June, will not become a paid member of the administration.

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