Los Angeles School District Wrestles with Environmental Issues in Building Boom
LOS ANGELES The gold walls and chrome balconies of Santee High School gleam against a backdrop of warehouses and aging homes.
When it opens Tuesday, the campus in tough South Los Angeles will become the first completely new high school built in 35 years in the city. It's part of the biggest ongoing school construction project in the United States and stands as a symbol of revival for the nation's second-largest district.
More than 3,000 district students are now packed into high schools designed for less than half that number. Laboratories are relics from the 1960s, and teachers roam campuses without having a desk of their own.
"You go out in the hallways, and they're full, you can barely walk," said David Estrada, 16. "You have to wait for everything, for food, for talking to counselors. Sometimes kids just leave because no one even notices if they're there."
Yet Santee, built upon the contaminated site of an old dairy, also symbolizes the challenges the Los Angeles Unified School District faces in building environmentally safe schools in an area where contamination and earthquake faults cut through the earth.
Last month, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control said the school's developer used tainted rubble as backfill beneath the school. The material contained varying levels of PCBs, lead and other potentially toxic chemicals.
Tests later determined the rubble posed no threat, but the situation has stirred bitter memories of past environmental fiascos. The most notorious occurred at Belmont High School five years ago, when the district spent $270 million on what became the nation's most expensive public school campus.
Its doors, however, remain closed because it was built atop explosive pockets of methane gas and an earthquake fault just west of downtown.
In the Los Angeles district, where enrollment has reached 746,000, families in heavily minority communities have pushed for decades for new classrooms to help eliminate year-round classes and ease violence attributed to overcrowding. But after construction began in the mid-1990s, several highly touted projects became environmental albatrosses.
Some parents remain suspicious.
"It's not a question of science. Now it's a question of distrust, of public opinion," said Margarita Jackson, whose son will attend the new school.
School officials noted Santee is just one of more than 160 new campuses in the works as part of a $14.6 billion school construction and renovation project funded through bonds.
Superintendent Roy Romer acknowledged that each of the sites has the potential to be a toxic land mine but added the district has opened 17 new schools in less than five years and will complete nearly 40 more by year's end. All have been cleared by state environmental officials.
The district's building boom is one of several large school construction projects underway nationwide. Las Vegas is building 90 schools to accommodate enrollment growth, while New York has 51 schools planned to help house its nearly 1.2 million students.
"If you're going to develop in Los Angeles, especially in the inner city... you find toxic materials because usually it was land that was used for industrial purposes," said Roger Carrick, who oversaw an investigation into Belmont.
"The issue is how well you characterize the potential problems and whether you correct it," he said. "The question was whether it was handled properly."
Cecilia Nunez, a founder of Neighbors for an Improved Community, added: "It begs the question. What other dirty little environmental secrets are there?"
Romer has tried to turn things around by replacing project administrators with a team of retired Navy engineers. He also vowed to finish the building initiative by 2012 and insisted that Belmont can be opened by 2007.
He also conceded that the district "made a mistake" at Santee by giving the builder too much independence and by waiting for the company to alert state officials about the contamination.
Steve Spillman, vice president of Emerald Development, which built the campus, said he did not know why the tainted soil was used, and he blamed an independent contractor for the problem.
But, sitting in Santee's auditorium, Marta Renteria smiled at the thought of sending her daughter to the new school.
"I've lived here for 28 years, and not one of my kids has ever gone to a new school, a school as nice as this one," she said. "It's about time they build them."
Source: Associated Press