April 1, 1989 - From the April, 1989 issue

L.A.U.S.D.: What to Do, Where to Build?

Dan Garcia, former president of the Planning Commission, writes an op-ed on land use troubles that afflict L.A.U.S.D. As a developer entity, it has to house and educate children in a 700 square mile, adjust to rapid demographic changes, and deal with rising land values. Dan Garcia then provides potential remedies to alleviate the trilemma affecting L.A.U.S.D. 

Dan Garcia

"Bigger than Maguire Thomas ... More powerful than the Planning Department… More involved in communities than the CRA and the CDD combined ... And less loved than the Housing Authority..."—Daniel Garcia

Bigger than Maguire Thomas ... More powerful than the Planning Department… More involved in communities than the CRA and the CDD combined ... And less loved than the Housing Authority... The Los Angeles Unified School District is simply the biggest developer in the greater Los Angeles area. And... it can ignore the City's planning process at will.

The Building and Real Estate Department of L.A.U.S.D. is fairly small, yet it has the impossible burden of ensuring that there are sufficient facilities to house, as well as educate, the kids throughout a 700 square mile geographic boundary. If you understand what has happened to building anything in just the city of Los Angeles, you realize what a difficult task that is.

The physical development of the City has essentially occurred so that most of the developable lots are built up. At the same time during the course of 20 years, a very rapid and significant series of demographic changes have changed the ethnic and geographic composition of the City. Both the ethnicity and the number of kids per family have changed faster than the ability of most people to understand what those changes represent in terms of their educational needs. And the demographic change is certainly faster than the apparatus established to build schools could possibly respond to.

The School District is always trying to catch up; it is constantly in a position such as at Belmont High where there arc 5,000 kids, 1,000 of whom need to be bussed. In the next two years, the number of students bussed will increase to 3,000 if they don't do anything. In a service area beginning at Western Avenue, and running to Chinatown, there is a need for 4-5 Grammar schools, 1-2 Junior High Schools, and no place to put them that is readily apparent.

The School District receives its capital improvements funds from the State Allocations Board, but the system of allocation and the window of funding are not conducive to rational, long-range efforts. It is rather a series of spasms that result from the budget process. Further, the strains of Proposition 13 and 4 are now seen more than ever. Fearing that these monies will evaporate if they are not currently used, L.A.U.S.D. is often forced to select school sites in an unnaturally short period of time.

A serious problem therefore results because the time frame the School Board has to make decisions is different from planning cycles. A councilperson who wants to plan a district and meet with the community will prolong the City's planning process. This is exactly the antithesis of state regulatory pressure coming down on L.A.U.S.D.

Thus we see conflicting procedural impulses of a powerful natureone is purely political, one is purely budgetary-pushing in opposite directions. Serious conflicts arise about how decisions should be made and what decisions are made.

The pressures upon the School Board-including the timing of its funding and the process by which they have to compete for funding with other jurisdictionsare sufficiently strong that cooperation with the City is not an ongoing component of its building program. Last year, Frank Eberhard, the Zoning Administrator, presented the Planning Commission with 40 possible school sites as well as an outline of criteria that should be used in school siting. The School District can ignore the criteria and the sites, since, under state law, it can do whatever it wants.


What needs to change? As time goes on, economic pressures continue, and land values go up, it will become increasingly difficult to acquire large lots for schools. Grammar schools require 6-8 acres, Junior Highs need 15-30 acres, while high schools require 30-35 acres.

These are massive takings and these standards seem to apply to school sites in developing areas rather than sites in an intensely regulated area. We have to reexamine how to redesign schools; there is nothing magical about a one story class­room.

And since many school acquisitions will displace some residents, we have to minimize the taking to the least extent possible. Recent legislation by Mike Roos was a first step in this direction, but not nearly enough design flexibility exists under recent regulations.

In addition, the funding process for school sites needs to be made more flexible so that it can be compatible with the planning process. Moreover, there must be a will at both staff and Board level of the District to play an ongoing-not episodic role-with the Planning Department.

Finally, we need to plan in 10-12 year cycles. After the 1990 census, our planning should accurately project future growth. Even if we do not have any gains in housing units, our population will continue to change and grow. This is a problem which will not go away.

Daniel Garcia, former president of the Planning Commission, is a partner with Munger, Tolles & Olson


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