June 30, 1995 - From the June, 1995 issue

LEARN Facilities Task Force: Existing buildings as Classrooms

The LAUSD's CAP program buses approximately 11,000 students per school day, costing the district $11 million per year. O'Malley Miller and Mike Roos propose an alternative solution to classroom overcrowding: retrofit existing buildings as classrooms. Mr. Miller is from Munger, Tolles & Olson; Mr. Roos is President and CEO of LEARN.


“The focus of the Task Force’s analysis is (a) whether commercial, retail and/or industrial buildings could be cost-effectively retrofitted in order to create neighborhood schools and (b) what legal changes are necessary to permit this to happen.”

On October 8, 1994, a date which the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) calls a “normal” day, there were 11,013 students being bussed out of their neighborhoods as a result of overcrowding in their neighborhood schools. We are told by the LAUSD that these children are being bussed for, on average, in excess of one hour each way, as part of the LAUSD’s Capacity Adjustment Program (CAP). According to LAUSD, the cost of bussing these students is approximately $1,000 per student per year. In other words, LAUSD spends over $11,000,000 per year on CAP. We are told by LAUSD’s representatives that, in order to avoid bussing the children, LAUSD would need to construct a total of 485 new classrooms: 336 secondary classrooms and 149 primary classrooms.

The costs associated with this bussing, forced not by any court order but simply by inadequate classroom availability, goes far beyond the approximately $11 million per year of direct expenses to the LAUSD. The indirect costs are almost incalculable. Most of these children forego post school athletic programs. They must get up at the crack of dawn in order to travel to neighborhoods that are far from their homes. It is easy to predict that the children will be less alert, more tired and generally unfavorably disposed to school when they arrive. 

It is almost impossible for their parents to become involved with parent/teacher organizations, must less in the daily activities at their children’s schools. The effect on freeway congestion and air quality are obvious. The CAP program is indefensible.

The Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN) was organized in 1991 by various community leaders to address the stunning drop in achievement by students attending our public schools. A portion of LEARN' s work was to review the availability of neighborhood schools. The LEARN Facilities Tack Force was brought together by Robert Wyckoff and Mike Roos in order to see whether the private sector could help find creative solutions to the root cause of the CAP: i.e., lack of classrooms in the most densely populated areas of the city. 

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Chaired by Mike Roos, the Task Force includes architects, financial analysts, contractors, attorneys and real estate brokers. The focus of the Task Force's analysis is (a) whether commercial, retail and/or industrial buildings could be cost-effectively retrofitted in order to create neighborhood schools and (b) what legal changes are necessary to permit this to happen. The essential notion is that, particularly given the state of the real estate economy in Southern California today, existing buildings could be utilized to create new schools at a fraction of the cost and at a small fraction of the time ordinarily associated with the development of a new school from scratch. While it is essential that the schools be seismically safe, part of the analysis is focused on whether the Byzantine requirements of the State of California's so-called "Field Code" are really necessary. 

Many of the laws were drafted at the time when the quintessential new school was the red brick schoolhouse in a suburban or rural setting. The members of the Task Force believe, however, that the desperate problems being created by the CAP program require innovative approaches. It is simply unacceptable for the LAUSD to wait the seven, eight or nine years it takes to bring a new middle school online, while thousands of children are being forced to spend millions of hours per year on LAUSD busses. 

The LAU SD says it needs 485 new classrooms in order to house the CAP children in their own neighborhoods. How much would it cost to build those classrooms? Let's assume each classroom averages 1,500 sq. ft,, which Marv Taff of Gensler & Associates indicates is a fair estimate. This number includes a "load" for connecting corridors. If we also assume the price to build would be $100 per square foot (a liberal assumption), then the cost of building the 485 classrooms would be approximately $72,750,000. In other words, if the LAUSD were to build the classrooms and eliminate the CAP program (saving approximately $11,000,000 per year), the cost of building the new classrooms would be amortized by the savings created by terminating the CAP program in approximately seven years. Parenthetically, these costs assume new construction. The Facilities Task Force believes that the cost of retrofitting existing buildings into safe, alternative schools would be less. We believe that bureaucratic intransigence is an insufficient justification for the CAP program. What began as a band-aid to address the under capacity of the LAUSD system has become an institutionalized program inflicting daily harm to the children of Los Angeles. The LEARN Facilities Task Force is prepared to work with the representatives of LAUSD in order to find new classrooms for the children of Los Angeles. At the end of the day, however, it is simply unjustifiable for over 11,000 children to spend over 11,000 hours every school day simply because it is easier to finance busses than classrooms. It is equally unacceptable to wait seven to nine years before the LAUSD could build those classrooms in the ordinary course of events, while millions of square feet of perfectly satisfactory commercial, retail and industrial space is vacant and available for conversion into first class schools. No reasonable person could suggest to the contrary.

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