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L.A. Unified Lags In Bond Funding Race Schools: While district struggles to submit building plans and acquire sites, other agencies snap up much of state money.

By Doug Smith, Times Education Writer

Falling behind in the race to claim state school bond funds, the Los Angeles Unified School District could get only a fraction of the money it has counted on to help build 100 new schools.

Smaller school districts around the state have snapped up almost half of the $2.9 billion available for new construction under Proposition 1A, the largest school bond measure in state history, district officials concede. So far, Los Angeles Unified has secured only $22 million.

Now, to qualify for any sizable part of the funds, the district must pick up the pace, mastering the Herculean task of identifying school sites, purchasing land and getting architectural plans approved by the state before the remaining money becomes available next July.

The pressure to speed up the process comes amid increasing criticism of L.A. Unified's past mistakes in school site selection and demands that it exercise more care.

The only way to get the money it needs, some advocates for the district say, is legislative relief to ensure that the Los Angeles schools receive a specific portion.

Considering the poor reputation of L.A. Unified's construction record, that appears uncertain.

"We must have our fair share of these dollars," said Steve Soboroff, chairman of a committee that oversees the spending of Proposition BB funds. The local bond, passed in 1997, will provide about $900 million that is intended to match the state money.

Soboroff has proposed that $1.4 billion in state bond money be set aside now for the Los Angeles schools. He also wants to rewrite rules that put large urban districts such as Los Angeles at a disadvantage.

The first-come, first-served approach gives smaller and rural districts a head start, because scarcity of land, high prices, environmental problems and neighborhood opposition all drag out the acquisition process for larger, more urban districts.

"We're in a race we can't win," said Ronald Prescott, the district's deputy superintendent for governmental relations.

But critics blame the district's poor showing on its failure to start the selection process earlier, and argue that only painful incentives will make a difference.

District officials promised last year that they were poised to claim nearly 25% of Proposition 1A funds. However, they could come close to the debacle of 1996, when poor planning resulted in Los Angeles schools reaping only about 1% of $2 billion in state bond construction funds.

Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Glendale), one of the district's harshest critics, said other districts should get the money if L.A. Unified can't get its applications done in time.

"Three years from now, that $1.4 billion will still be set aside and we still won't have any applications," Wildman said. "If they had begun this process two years ago or three years ago, they'd be in the right place in line."

Proposition 1A, approved in November with strong support in Los Angeles County, provided $6.7 billion for elementary and secondary schools.

Portions of the money were set aside for school modernization and class-size reduction, leaving $2.9 billion for new construction.

So far, on top of the $22 million for new construction, the district has received approval for $67 million to upgrade old schools, said Lyle Smoot, district bond coordinator.

Next month, the district also expects to get $278 million, its first big chunk of money for school construction.

But even that money, from the class-size reduction fund, was held up this week when Wildman used his position on the State Allocation Board to block its approval.

Saying he did not trust the district to spend the $278 million on the intended purpose, Wildman demanded a written promise that none of the money would be diverted to such projects as the environmentally plagued, $200-million Belmont Learning Complex. The high school is under construction west of downtown.

District officials said they are willing to prepare the document. Matched with the district's own Proposition BB bond, the $278 million would build about 50 primary centers and elementary schools to ease overcrowding caused by class-size reduction.

Qualifying for that pot of money was relatively easy, however, because of district-backed legislation that earmarked the class-size reduction fund for crowded districts and removed the requirement for pre-approved plans.

Far more challenging will be qualifying for the new construction fund, which the district is counting on for 50 more schools.

Already, other districts have generated 378 applications, said Dave Zian, manager of program services for the state Office of Public School Construction. Of those, 100 have been approved, gobbling up about two-thirds of the new construction money available this year. An additional 183 are still being processed. The remainder were found incomplete and returned.

In contrast, L.A. Unified has completed only six applications--for one new elementary school, four primary centers and the expansion of an existing school.

In the face of those lopsided numbers, Los Angeles school officials are trying to remain optimistic.

"I think we're OK," said Smoot, the district's bond coordinator. Smoot said he believes there will be enough money left over for the district's needs if it can get its applications done by July 1, when the second half of the new construction money becomes available.

"We're certainly working breakneck on a plan to get most, if not all, of the 50 schools in by June 30. We realize that is a very aggressive plan, and it is fraught with dangers and problems."

In addition to the applications now on file, the district has acquired property for 11 schools and applications for those sites could be forthcoming, district spokesman Erik Nasarenko said.

The Los Angeles Board of Education has approved feasibility studies on 22 other sites, which means environmental reviews can begin. Studies could be authorized on nine more sites at the board's Sept. 14 meeting.

But each of those proposals faces a number of potential obstacles, including tough environmental reviews prompted by the district's past habit of downplaying severe environmental problems.

Those failures include the half-completed Belmont Learning Complex, which the district is now in danger of losing. A commission created by the board last month is now studying whether to open or abandon the half-finished Belmont, which is being built over a former oil field that emits explosive methane and toxic hydrogen sulfide.

Also, the parcels selected for a new high school and elementary school in South Gate are known to have severe environmental problems that could preclude their use for schools.

Nasarenko said the district has hired a consultant to investigate whether the hazards at the two South Gate schools can be mitigated.

Other properties, particularly one chosen for a high school in the east San Fernando Valley, are already facing stiff community opposition that could slow or prevent their purchase.

On top of all that, as the district takes on large-scale land purchase for the first time in decades, it will be drawn into numerous negotiations, any of which could lead to eminent domain proceedings.

Considering the huge obstacles, the chance of wrapping up 50 school applications next year appears far-fetched to those who have come to expect under-performance from the district bureaucracy.

"I don't see that happening," Soboroff said. "There's no way."

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

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