October 30, 1991 - From the October, 1991 issue

Mark Slavkin: LAUSD’s Expansion Plans Pose Land Use Challenges

“Bigger than Maguire Thomas ... More powerful than the Planning Department ... The Los Angeles Uni­fied School District is simply the biggest developer in the Los Angeles area. And... it can ignore the City’s planning process at will.” 

That was how Dan Garcia de­scribed LAUSD two years ago in this publication. To reexamine the role of the School District in the planning and development process, The Planning Report interviewed Mark Slavkin, School Board member and Chairman of the Board’s Facili­ties Committee.

What is the magnitude of the con­struction needs of the School District in the coming years?

We can look at this in the context of our massive enrollment growth, which is right around 20,000 new students each year, extending for at least the next 10 years. The most dramatic growth is in the areas that are already overcrowded, so we’re looking at 200,000 new students in communities that are not prepared to handle them.

This means 10 to 12 new elemen­tary schools, three or four new junior high schools, and two or three new high schools every year for ten years, representing billions of dollars in capital costs that we do not have a way to finance. Identifying the acreage in these dense communities is difficult — there just isn’t empty property in this city. So the magni­tude of the crisis is beyond our current mechanisms to address it. 

How does the School District go about constructing new school facilities to address these needs? What are the steps in your development process? 

Currently the process is run by the State — by State bureaucracies and a State set of rules. We identify an area with overcrowding where we know we need a new school. First we need to ask the State if we are eligible for a new school, and if, through their formulas, they say yes, we pick the site and do an EIR. We then get in line for money to acquire the site — it can take two to four years to get an allocation. It then takes another two to four years for the State to allocate money for contractors to build the school. 

I don’t know that one could con­ceive of a more inefficient, drawn-out process. Part of the problem is that the leadership at the State level enjoys this as a pork barrel process. The State Allocation Board’s Office of Local Assistance is pretty arcane stuff, and it’s unaccountable. A handful of leg­islators control the process, and the priority list for school funding isn’t published and is subject to change. 

The whole process must be re­placed with something that’s locally based and that gives us flexibility. We’re considering the option of a local bond measure for the school district, which would give us far greater leverage over the process. 

What is the local LAUSD process for selecting sites for new school con­struction?

We target areas, hold public meetings to solicit suggestions from the neighborhood, and figure out what’s viable. Based on that analy­sis, the staff recommends sites to the Board and we do an EIR for those sites. I think this is an inadequate process because there’s no linkage with the City’s planning process. The City might envision a potential school site as open space, or as integral to the City’s transportation plan. 

We need some formal process to engage the City in the planning pro­cess. As long as it’s ad hoc, Council members will be reluctant to make the tough calls, particularly when displacement is involved. In a formal process, the City as part of its com­munity plan review process could designate school sites or at least school zones. 

On the subject of linking your activities to planning, planners have identified the Ambassador Hotel site as the cornerstone of the mid-Wilshire area. LAUSD’s proposal to use it as a high school has been criticized as poor planning and overly expensive. How would your proposed reforms affect this site? 

I think the Ambassador is an ex­ample of the old process. In this case, trust broke down early on. The Am­bassador could have been the source of a fruitful debate over our future needs, but I regret the way it got hysterical. 

It’s not over yet. The District has received a commitment from the State to pay for the back half of that site, leaving 17 acres on Wilshire that is still a large and viable site for com­mercial development. The argument that a school is incompatible with commercial development has to be debated because in a built-out envi­ronment the alternative is the demoli­tion of homes. Now, we’re ready to go to trial next June to determine whether our offer for the site is adequate. 

We’ve talked thus far about building new schools, but can the District also lease space in existing buildings? 

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Construction of new schools is only part of the solution — EIR’s take time, construction takes time. We can lease, but there are financing problems because it’s a state-run deal — we need more flexibility for leases. Unfortunately, the state is locked into financing only new facilities rather than having creative arrangements, such as leases. 

I’m also interested in non-tradi­tional school sites as a component of other development. A company downtown or in Century City could provide classroom space for children of employees who work in the build­ing. You’d drive to work with your child, there’s daycare in the afternoon, and you’d go home with your child in the evening. That is also part of the solution — you're not building new schools but you’re accommodating the needs of parents and creating classroom space. 

The architectural community feels that the District’s approach in building schools is almost liu that of building prisons or warehouses. There’s no sensitivity to dtsign, to meeting the needs of the specific community, or to involving students and teachers in the design process. How do you respond? 

Your rhetoric is overstated but the general thrust is accurate. We’re short on vision, on conceiving a dif­ferent way for schools to look. First, there’s an assumption that classrooms are square, that they line up on a central hallway, and that the playground looks a certain way. Second, there are real restrictions imposed by the state that create incentives to come up with an approvable model. 

We also need a way to push the decision-making process down to the local level, with parents and the design community involved. The people who are going to use the building need to be involved. There’s been a sense that the schools are branch offices of the district office downtown and are solely our purview. Venice and University High School have Recently undergone badly-needed overhauls, and the community did have some involve­ment, but the process was ad hoc.

We have some success stories. For example, the Bravo Medical Magnet at County-USC Hospital is an innovative way of building up on a very small site.

ls the Medical Magnet project serving as a model for future public-private partnerships in building new schools? 

The Medical Magnet was done with the cooperation of USC, Na­tional Medical Enterprises, and the School District. I think there’s a real openness now to these partnerships because we lack up-front money to do anything. We need developers who can say, “I’ll build you a school, maybe in conjunction with retail, commercial, or housing. I’ll build it to your specs and lease it back to you in 30 years.” In light of the state’s funding constraints, such arrangements are contingent on a local funding source for the lease payments. 

On existing sites, we have schools with huge parcels and huge playgrounds, particularly in West L.A. We have an opportunity to work with developers who can provide housing (though this raises other issues) while providing a larger school in the process. The solution to our overcrowd­ing needs to be 15 different things, so we’re open to looking at all of them. 

What’s the game plan for addressing the concerns we’ve discussed?

In November, we begin a series of public hearings on these broad-based issues. We intend to begin with a Facilities Committee public hearing on the extent of our growth and on where schools will be needed. We will seek input from the broader community, including developers, city planners, and Council members. The next step is brainstorming a se­ries of ideas that I hope will lead to specific recommendations during this year. It’s long overdue for us to begin looking at these policy issues. 

The bottom line is that we need help. The Board of Education typi­cally does not have members with a background in planning issues: these are people trained as educators. We need to be more willing to reach out to the community of experts to help us deal with these issues. I’ve been impressed with the number of people I’ve met who’ve already thought about these issues but feel shut out from the process, who haven’t seen a way to tap into the School District’s activi­ties. So the message I would leave you with is that we need your help.

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