Board of Education has chosen 82 sites for new schools without city aid

While the L.A. mayoral and city council candidates were promising to help the Los Angeles Unified School District find new school sites, the district itself quietly identified 82 of the 85 sites it needs for the first round of new schools.

Over the last few months, the LAUSD Board of Education has given preliminary approval to each of these 82 sites and has sent the selections to the state, which has final approval over school siting and much of the funding.

"While they've all been talking about it, we've actually done it," said new school board president Caprice Young. "We've found the sites and, with maybe a handful of exceptions, these are the sites that the new schools will be built on."

But outside observers say the district may be premature in its touting of new school sites.

"Many of the sites they have identified may not get environmental clearance from the state. Others are bound to meet with intense opposition from local residents or businesses once they find out more about them," said David Abel, chairman of the civic group New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, a non-profit foundation funded by local business and labor interests to promote building of new schools in urban areas. "I would expect about one-third of these sites to drop out in the next several months." The 82 sites stretch in a band from the northeast San Fernando Valley through Downtown L.A. into the mid-cities area southeast of Downtown. They are located in the heart of the most overcrowded sections of the sprawling school district, where thousands of students are now bused out to schools in less crowded parts of the district. Virtually all the existing schools in these areas operate on year-round, multi-track schedules.

150 new schools needed

To relieve the overcrowding crisis in L.A. schools, somewhere between 100 and 150 new schools will ultimately be needed, at a total cost of $2 billion to $3 billion, district officials say. The immediate goal has been to get the 85 sites in the first round of schools into the construction phase by the end of next year and to have them completed by 2006.

Selecting these sites and getting state funding for them has, in the past, proven to be a controversial and slow process. In June of 2000, the district missed a state deadline to submit approved sites for funding and thus passed up as much as $500 million in Proposition 1A new facilities bond money.

A big part of the problem has been the difficulty in finding sites in highly urbanized areas. L.A. has little open or abandoned space and that which is available is often highly polluted. The district does have eminent domain power to force people to relocate to make way for a new school, but using such authority often results in months of delays and litigation.

As a result, the district has to be creative in coming up with new sites. Many of the 82 sites identified by the district are joint-use, either sharing existing facilities with other entities or locating schools immediately adjacent to them, according to Kathi Littman, director of new construction for the district.

"We've got one site at Grand (Avenue) and Adams (Boulevard) that's right next to Orthopedic Hospital and another site in the San Fernando Valley that used to be an L.A. Department of Water & Power building," Littman said.

The old Santee Dairy site in South-Central L.A. is on the list for a 2,100-seat high school. And even the current LAUSD headquarters at 450 North Grand Ave. just across the 101 Freeway from the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is slated to be converted into a high school.

State clearance required

Before these sites can have schools built on them, the district must pass several hurdles at the state level. Each site needs double environmental clearance. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control must certify that the sites meet stringent pollution cleanup standards. And the district must present environmental impact statements for each site, looking at the impacts of a school on the surrounding community.

And there's the thorny issue of relocation of residents and businesses for many of the sites. While the school district has eminent domain power, if residents and businesses resist the relocation efforts, it could add months or even years to the process of buying up the land.

To protect against the threat of delays, the district has set up a land bank where it will buy property from willing sellers and set it aside until final state approval is given.

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