American Times: Los Angeles - An almighty stink at the costliest school

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ALTHOUGH FAR from completion, the Belmont Learning Complex on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles is already the most expensive school to be built in the United States - $170m in public funds committed so far and the meter still ticking.

If it ever opens, it will also be one of the biggest schools in the country, with room for 5,000 students in a densely populated but desperately underserved part of the city.

That "if", though, is a big one. Three years after the city school district snapped up the vacant site and threw itself into construction, Belmont has found it is sitting on a potentially lethal cocktail of carcinogens, poison gases and explosive methane. To call it a health hazard is an understatement - chances are, anyone attending school there would die in a fireball long before they contracted cancer.

Welcome to a city scandal of mind-boggling proportions, where money appears to have been tossed around without any of the most basic questions being asked,where officials have ignored the recommendations of their own experts, and where petty intrigue has ridden roughshod over common sense.

Welcome, in other words, to southern Californian politics at its most shameless. How shameless? Well, it doesn't take a genius to work out that a disused oil exploration site might be a toxic gas hazard, especially in LA, where petroleum was once keenly sought and where the ground is seething with gaseous nasties. Most city planners are supremely careful, particularly since an underground methane explosion destroyed a clothing store in the Fairfax area without warning in 1985.

But such cautionary episodes did not stop the school board paying $60m for the site of the Belmont complex in 1996 without commissioning a single survey. Apparently, the assumption was to build the school first and worry about potential problems later.

As the first murmurs of serious trouble began to emerge, the school board simply went into denial. The board president, Vicki Castro, memorably told a group of concerned Latino parents that the only criticism of the project came from white politicians who didn't like Latinos. When Hamid Arabzadeh, the board's own health and safety expert, had the temerity to suggest his masters had made some "errors", he was summarily fired. (He has since launched a wrongful dismissal suit.)

The man who finally forced out the truth was Scott Wildman, a California State Assemblyman from Los Angeles, who used his position as the chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Commission to launch an inquiry into the misuse of school funds. It turned out the Belmont fiasco was part of a pattern established 10 years ago, when the board decided it did not want to force people out of their homes to make room for new schools and so initiated a policy of buying abandoned industrial sites instead.

Mr Wildman discovered that no fewer than nine LA schools were sitting on toxic dumps. In retaliation, school district leaders accused Mr Wildman of character assassination and hired two expensive public relations firms to ride out the media storm, taking away further resources from Los Angeles' desperately underfunded schools.

The matter came to a head two months ago, when all but one of the school board members in favour of the Belmont project were thrown out of office in a city election.

The new school board must either admit to the public that $170m has been wasted or try to salvage the situation without getting sucked into a bottomless financial hole. Either way, serious money will probably have to be spent to rehabilitate the land, if only to resell it. As David Tokofsky, a school board member who opposed the project from the start, put it: "There is no one dumb enough - except us - to buy it as is."

And if nobody will buy it? Well, there has been one witty suggestion: turn it into a retirement home for dis-graced former members of the school board.