LA’s $578 Million Public School

Did all those teachers get fired for this?

Next month’s opening of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools will be auspicious for a reason other than its both storied and infamous history as the former Ambassador Hotel, where the Democratic presidential contender was assassinated in 1968.

With an eye-popping price tag of $578 million, it will mark the inauguration of the nation’s most expensive public school ever.

The K-12 complex to house 4,200 students has raised eyebrows across the country as the creme de la creme of “Taj Mahal” schools, $100 million-plus campuses boasting both architectural panache and deluxe amenities.

“There’s no more of the old, windowless cinderblock schools of the ’70s where kids felt, ‘Oh, back to jail,’” said Joe Agron, editor-in-chief of American School & University, a school construction journal. “Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning.”

Not everyone is similarly enthusiastic.

“New buildings are nice, but when they’re run by the same people who’ve given us a 50 percent dropout rate, they’re a big waste of taxpayer money,” said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution who sits on the California Board of Education. “Parents aren’t fooled.”

At RFK, the features include fine art murals and a marble memorial depicting the complex’s namesake, a manicured public park, a state-of-the-art swimming pool and preservation of pieces of the original hotel.

Partly by circumstance and partly by design, the Los Angeles Unified School District has emerged as the mogul of Taj Mahals.

The RFK complex follows on the heels of two other LA schools among the nation’s costliest — the $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, which opened in 2008, and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School that debuted in 2009.

The pricey schools have come during a sensitive period for the nation’s second-largest school system: Nearly 3,000 teachers have been laid off over the past two years, the academic year and programs have been slashed. The district also faces a $640 million shortfall and some schools persistently rank among the nation’s lowest performing.

Nationwide, dozens of schools have surpassed $100 million with amenities including atriums, orchestra-pit auditoriums, food courts, even bamboo nooks. The extravagance has led some to wonder where the line should be drawn and whether more money should be spent on teachers.

Some experts say it’s not all flourish and that children learn better in more pleasant surroundings.

Many schools incorporate large windows to let in natural light and install energy-saving equipment, spending more upfront for reduced bills later. Cafeterias are getting fancier, seeking to retain students who venture off campus. Wireless Internet and other high-tech installations have become standard.

And what will be the political fallout or gain from this school?

Now to get state funds for a new school, districts must choose among three designs costing $49 million to $64 million. “We had to bring some sense to this process,” Cahill said.

In Los Angeles, officials say the new schools were planned long before the economic pinch and are funded by $20 billion in voter-approved bonds that do not affect the educational budget.

Still, even LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines derided some of the extravagance, noting that donations should have been sought to fund the RFK project’s talking benches commemorating the site’s history.

Connie Rice, member of the district’s School Bond Oversight Committee, noted the megaschools are only three of 131 that the district is building to alleviate overcrowding. RFK “is an amazing facility,” she said. “Is it a lot of money? Yes. We didn’t like it, but they got it done.”

Construction costs at LA Unified are the second-highest in the nation — something the district blames on skyrocketing material and land prices, rigorous seismic codes and unionized labor.

James Sohn, the district’s chief facilities executive, said the megaschools were built when global raw material shortages caused costs to skyrocket to an average of $600 per square foot in 2006 and 2007 — triple the price from 2002. Costs have since eased to $350 per square foot.

On top of that, each project had its own cost drivers.

After buildings were demolished at the site of the 2,400-student Roybal school, contaminated soil, a methane gas field and an earthquake fault were discovered. A gas mitigation system cost $17 million.

Over 20 years, the project grew to encompass a dance studio with cushioned maple floors, a modern kitchen with a restaurant-quality pizza oven, a 10-acre park and teacher planning rooms between classrooms.

The 1,700-student arts school was designed as a landmark, with a stainless steel, postmodernistic tower encircled by a rollercoaster-like swirl, while the RFK site involved 15 years of litigation with historic preservationists and Donald Trump, who wanted to build the world’s tallest building there. The wrangling cost $9 million.

Methane mitigation cost $33 million and the district paid another $15 million preserving historic features, including a wall of the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub and turning the Paul Williams-designed coffee shop into a faculty lounge.

Sohn said LA Unified has reached the end of its Taj Mahal building spree. “These are definitely the exceptions,” he said. “We don’t anticipate schools costing hundreds of millions of dollars in the future.”

One Comment on "LA’s $578 Million Public School"

  1. daddy warbucks Aug 23, 2010 · 8:40 am

    Ironworkers Local 433 made out great, but at whose expense?

    In the case of a black owned non union worker or business, would the PLAs meet every definition of apartheid.

    CA nonunion businesses and workers can’t work on but are still forced to fund these projects through taxation while imposing upon them nothing less than a policy of segregation, political, legal and economic discrimination.

    Putting a halt to PLAs would also save tax payers across the nation billions

    These agreements should be illegal and are ripping off taxpayers in the billions.

    I am not against unions, I am against the PLA.

    Project Labor Agreement (PLA)

    Most people I know don’t know what a PLA is nor how it affects them. Most state and federally funded construction projects sign on to this agreement with the unions before the bids go out.
    These agreements over ride the right to work law and prevent any non-union company from working on; schools/universities, fire/police stations, libraries, hospitals, railroad stations, any public buildings/projects, etc. Add this up in CA and across the country over the past 10 years!

    Our bought politicians know about and enable this gouging of tax payers (contributions?).

    The average cost of each project is increased by about 17%, google this and see the studies that have been done. Add this up across the country over the past 10 years!

    If you are a tax paying construction business in a city where one of these projects is taking place (everywhere), you cannot bid or work on site unless your are part of the agreement (but taxes will still be levied on you and your business to pay for it).

    Union or non union, a company bidding a project must show proven capabilities, worker certifications, past experience, references, financial status, required insurances and if required; post bonding. Saying a non union company that meets these standards is not qualified is pure BS. The union bosses also say union workers go through extensive training – I can tell you from experience that this doesn’t mean they’ve all ‘learned’ anything or that they may have a certification but also a history of other poor job performance. Bidding work is intensely competitive, taking the time to ‘double check and qualify’ supposedly already qualified workers is not an option if your trying to complete a project within a limited time frame and expect a profit. Tight schedules means there are trades that need to complete their work before and after you, you only have a ‘window of time’ to get in and get out or you’ll be fined per contract and back charged by other trades you may have affected. Try doing this with workers (you must hire out of the hall) you don’t even know and while paying them $50+ per hour along with expensive rental equipment and materials deliveries! The big companies are able to hold on to the good site workers and weed out the problem workers, who end up on the bench and, who, subsequently small contractors are forced to use (like in my case, I eventually shut down my small business largely because of this). This eventually reduces the big companies competition along with the chances of reducing tax payer construction costs through competition.

    I am not against unions, I am against the PLA.

    I am not against unions, I am against the PLA.

    It is wrong that a small group of private citizens/businesses can make this kind of a deal with public employees.

    A PLA is a practice that is unfair, destructive and discriminatory, it interferes with the legitimate rights of others /CT taxpayers,
    does not promote the full flow of commerce and should be illegal.

    PLAs are a means of demobilizing legitimate competition by imposing limits on labor’s ability to bid and work on public construction projects.

    PLAs result in reduced revenues endangering CA citizens through increasing financial stresses on all first responders.

    PLAs reduce revenues at the expense of other goods and services in CA and reduces economic growth.

    PLAs allow a small group of private businesses to make a pact with public employees to force out non union taxpaying CA construction businesses from bidding or working on public construction projects.

    I believe PLAs are wrong and should be stopped.

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