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L.A. Panel Decides on Toxic School

October 20, 1999

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ An expert panel recommended Wednesday that the Los Angeles school system finish building a half-completed, $200 million high school on a former oil field that releases dangerous gases.

The independent commission set up just to decide what to do with the nation’s costliest high school voted 4-3 to continue building the complex. The commission said it would attach conditions on dealing with the dangers of the site later.

The commissioners who voted for completing the project said starting over at a new site _ if one could be found _ would cost far more, push back the opening of a new school many years and force thousands of students to be bused from the area to other campuses.

The Board of Education had indicated it would follow the panel’s advice.

The scandal over the Belmont Learning Complex has already contributed to the downfall of the superintendent, who last week was stripped of day-to-day control in favor of a new chief executive.

The 35-acre complex was designed to be a showpiece for the nation’s second-largest school district. It was to have room for 5,000 students in a poor neighborhood near downtown and include stores, a police station and sports facilities for the community.

Construction had to be dramatically scaled back this year after high levels of explosive methane gas and lesser amounts of hydrogen sulfide, a highly toxic gas, were detected.

As early as 1989, a state Division of Oil and Gas official recommended against building on the 100-year-old oil field. But the plans moved ahead anyway, and the district now admits that it acted after conducting an inadequate environmental assessment.

Before Wednesday’s vote, 150 students marched from the existing, overcrowded Belmont High campus to urge that the district complete the Belmont Learning Complex.

``You ... invested so much money and time into this school, and all of a sudden it’s not going to be built? I don’t think that’s right,″ said senior Brenda Balles, 17. ``I don’t think it’s fair for our taxes to go into something and just be wasted.″

None of the seven commission members _ experts on public health, law and science _ disputed that the site was a bad choice. One member, David S. Beckman said the site poses a hazard under state and federal standards.

``The initial purchase was a mistake,″ said another commission member, Ira H. Monosson. ``It never should have been done.″ But he added: ``This site is not as dangerous as some people have been trying to characterize. ... I believe that this can be controlled and made quite safe.″

The district has already spent $144 million on Belmont. The commission concluded that finishing Belmont and adding technology to ease the gas problem would boost the cost to about $249 million.

During earlier commission hearings, experts indicated that the possibility of students dying from or being sickened by the gas was remote.

Other experts were questioned about potential lawsuits from students and faculty members if the school is completed. Monosson said he was convinced that such cases would be found to be without merit.

In September, investigators issued a scathing report that recommended that several school district officials be punished or fired. In addition to the project’s environmental problems, the report criticized conflicts of interests between those who put together the construction deal and ``rudderless″ policies of the 697,000-student Los Angeles school district.

Last week, the School Board appointed Howard Miller chief executive of the district and ordered that all departments report to him instead of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias.

Zacarias’ removal from day-to-day control of the district led to allegations of racism from Hispanic leaders. He is fighting the move.

In addition to the Belmont scandal, the district has been beset by controversies over low test scores and the possible loss of $900 million in state bond money for 100 new schools.

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