March 30, 1998 - From the March, 1998 issue

LAUSD’s Challenge: Not Whether to Fix Its Schools, But How—Under Prop. BB

In the following TPR interview, Los Angeles School Board Member David Tokofsky and General Manager of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Facilities Division, Beth Louargand discuss the needs that spurred last year’s Proposition BB school facilities bonds measure, and how Prop. BB is or is not helping.

Ms. Louargand, describe for us the unmet need that required the passage of Prop. BB and elaborate on what LAUSD is doing to use the funds in an appropriate way? 

Beth Louargand: There were three challenges. One was this backlog of repairs that totaled 

approximately $600 million—things like leaking roofs, outdated plumbing, buildings that needed painting and flooring that needed replacing. 

The second was to wire our schools for technology—to bring them into the 21st century so they could take full advantage of computers and the Internet. Only two or three schools had significant computer capability because of a system-wide lack of com­puter infrastructure. 

Third was the need for new schools. We're experiencing very significant growth here in L.A. Two years ago, we grew by 18,000 kids, last year by 13,000. This year we're looking at adding another 11,000. That's quite a few new schools! So, our next big challenge is to identify every location that needs a new school and move forward in obtaining the land and actually building the schools. 

Wasn't air conditioning the schools a prime need? 

Beth Louargand: It fit into the bond measure as one of the schools' most pressing needs. L.A. can be very hot, and schools that were built 50-60 years ago weren't air conditioned. We all drive home in air-conditioned cars and our offices are air conditioned—our children need to be in air-conditioned environments too. 

With opportunity, there is also crisis. With LAUSD having so much bond money now, a lot of attention is being spent on analyzing whether you 're utilizing that money properly, including recent accusations that maybe some schools are being short­changed, and on the air conditioning issue that you're not being as ef­ficient with your money as you might be. Your thoughts?

Beth Louargand: On the air conditioning issue, the Superintendent recently announced that the District was negotiating exclusively with Pacific Gas and Electric. We are now in the contractual phase and moving forward nicely. We are taking a fast-track approach to air conditioning the schools in hotter areas, hoping to finish by next September. We signed 80 architects to begin working on 130-odd schools' air conditioning designs the day after the bond passed. Incidentally, we are employing architects because the State requires architect-approved designs to be submitted to the State Architect’s division for approval.

If the District had at any time halted design work or the bidding process, we would have risked missing our commitment to air condition the schools by next September. Also, this process was very involved—and the contract is huge. After having been through the Belmont process—it took eight years before ground was broken—we can't assume things will always go smoothly. Our first concern is getting the schools air conditioned. 

We've also spent a lot of time on the equity issue. Schools in certain parts of the district historically have had more money spent on them from State construction or deferred maintenance funds. But schools in the Valley, because they are newer, may have had less spent on them. Now, with Prop. BB money, there is a flip­flop. Schools that have a had a lot of recent repairs get less bond money. It's critical to remember that schools have now had four chances to review their contracts, add repairs when needed, and make sure they had what they needed. 

Another issue going before the Board shortly is that there are many schools that lack a certain basic facility—a cafeteria, an adequate gym, or an adequate multi-purpose room, for instance. There are close to 200 schools that fall into that category, and the Board is going to have to carefully weigh the need for new schools against the exiting schools' needs for additional facilities. 

David, as a board member—how difficult is it to do facilities management and development in a public fishbowl at the School District. It appears to the casual observer to be unbelievably difficult.

David Tokofsky: Part of the difficulty is confusion over what the Facility Division does and what the BB oversight team does. Another issue is that neither the previous nor the current Superintendent has consolidated even all the District's planning and construction divisions. They are all in different areas, not necessarily under Beth as the Director of Facilities.

So, you have internal fragmentation. Then the bond, with its oversight, created a check and balance mechanism that caused further conflict. And then there was the Belmont project, which garnered so much publicity. LAUSD also has an interest in the issue of student achievement. It's difficult to keep focused. 

Beth has been doing an outstanding job keeping us moving. But even while you're being criticized for not moving fast enough, there is sometimes a perception that if you move too fast, you're trying to sneak something by. Part of the responsibility to set the proper tone for the oversight team rests with the Board of Education, and part with the Superintendent. 

Interestingly, the Board wasn't very willing to install an oversight team. But things changed after we lost narrowly in November and went back again in April. Everybody realized that we had our eyes on the prize and could win it, so let's get the Mayor on board and add some additional members. Remember, the Board voted 6-1 against Riordan for November. Suddenly we had 11 members—like the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals—looking at what the District was doing. That created structural conflict. 

Things are settling down now. And there is a commonality of interest between the BB oversight team and the District—getting the facilities up for kids as quickly as possible. 

When the Superintendent was selected, there was a promise made that there would be a business czar. We no longer have a business czar. But if there were one, what would be the relationship between the business czar and facilities management? 

David Tokofsky: We had a very good business czar—CAO was what we decided to call him—in Hugh Jones, a former Kaiser Permanente executive. He understood facilities and, rather than bringing in his own staff from outside and taking a combative approach, he had Beth report directly to him, which was very productive. 

Now, the pressures on the CAO saying what he could and could not do came largely from outside—which could be interpreted as the Board, the Mayor, or the BB committee. Things are very different in the fishbowl of the School District than at Kaiser corporate headquarters in Pasadena. 

But the big issue now is, we selected a very talented, caring person the first go around with the CAO. What will happen with the new CAO? Will this person be an expert on facilities? Where will that person's loyalties be? Who's involved in the selection process? 

The process is much more hidden than it was last time. I could tell you who was on the selection committee and who narrowed the list for the Superintendent last time. This time, I don't know what's going on.


How are the decisions made now, without a CAO? 

Beth Louargand: They're getting made, as with air conditioning, very rapidly. That hasn't really been a problem. 

But many of the issues we're talking really come back to the Board of Education. The Facilities Committee must look at what we're doing closely, as does the whole Board. And the new school construction process right now is focused on trying to identify all the potential areas where we need to be doing work. We are working on costing out the need and looking at all these issues, such as who needs a cafeteria, a parking lot, etcetera. And that discussion will come to the Board because, ultimately, they must respond to their constituents. 

The school district is probably one of the largest developers and facility owners in the entire Los Angeles basin and yet many people think of LAUSD as just made up of classroom teachers. Is the school district presently equipped to carry out its facilities responsibility—a Caltrans-like responsibility—daily and manage these bond resources in the current governing structure that you're working within? 

Beth Louargand: Therefore, the District, the staff and the Superintendent all felt that we should bring in professional management companies. We now have 11 firms, selected through a competitive process, that are helping advise us on the overall organization of the bond, as well as construction management of the bond projects. 

In addition to those 11 companies, the oversight committee has several people with other areas of expertise—AIA members, professional engineers, building trades people. There's a lot of expertise helping the School District 

David Tokofsky: Hopefully our next Chief Administrative Officer will have a lot of that expertise. As Beth pointed out, O'Brien Kreitzberg is serving as a program manager along with 10 other companies—the likes of DMJM, CRSS and Vanir—people with a lot of construction background. This is on top of the expertise we have on the oversight committee and the board.

So, the BB system is not at all absent expertise. And it's not like the Belmont project where we turned it all over to some entrepreneurial private venture. Belmont, incidentally, became even more of a crisis because we tried to privatize it. The thinking was that privatization would be a good idea because the public process was so riddled with meddlers. But in the end privatization caused much more controversy. Ultimately, we're saddled with a mixed-governance system. It's not a pure system.

The goal is not to pursue facilities for their own sake, but that facilities are the means to the end of instructing children. As the original Belmont oversight committee head, Dean Blakely from USC, reminded us of several times, you are what you eat. And if we remember that the facilities, we build will determine the quality of education our children receive to a large degree, we will keep our eyes on the prize. 

Perhaps LAUSD's facilities problems highlight that size is a problem for L.A. Unified. In some school districts, the building of a new high school or elementary school is a civic focus. The community cares about it, the larger community, including the building trades and professionals, is involved in thinking about the project and funding it because it's a relatively large public expenditure and because the civic leaders' children are involved. In a district that’s almost 4,000 square miles, the Belmont Learning Complex is arguably only of interest to the civic leadership of our metropolis if it’s a headline in the paper and there’s a crisis. Is a district’s size a factor, then, in building good school facilities on time and on budget?

Beth Louargand: There's another project that doesn't get the headlines but that has had that community involvement: the King-Drew Medical Magnet School. It's been very much a success. There was full community involvement. A group of citizens worked with the design team and the architects, and they have stayed involved.

Today we just unveiled a sculpture that will be placed on the side of one of the buildings. It is an example of how you can do it without the giant headlines. And this process has proven very successful.

This sort of process takes a little longer because you must have a series of meetings to allow for community involvement. Those meetings may have extended the timeline a bit in this case, but in the end, we have a source of a pride not only to the people who will send their kids to that school, but to the physicians and administration of the hospital that supports it.

So, while you have Belmont on the one hand, you have King-Drew on the other. 

To close, we in Los Angeles have great graduate schools of education. We also have great architectural schools of national reputation. Yet, it appears neither have invested their resources and graduate students in either research or design of what a new school should include or look like. Would such counsel and input be welcome in LA USD?

Beth Louargand: We need to pursue that, although we’re already seeing a bit of it. One of the members of the Prop. BB oversight committee is a professor at USC, and they're working with us on just the issue of what colors to paint schools.

David and I have also talked about the need to look at smaller high schools and examine what kind of facilities they need. Is it true, for instance, that all high schools still need to consist of a football field, a basketball court and so on?

David Tokofsky: Beth has been very open in asking the Instruction Division for their views on changing instructional needs. Unfortunately, there is a giant vacuum in the Instruction Division—we haven't had a Superintendent of Instruction for 8-10 months since Ruben Zacarias took over. So, now when the largest bond any school district has ever passed in the US is available for repairs, maintenance, and new construction, we don't even have a vision of instruction! 

Beth is sitting there waiting for them to tell us, is it a 1,000-kid high school we need? Do we need larger classrooms, smaller classrooms, new modules with computer centers? These are instructional decisions that haven't been communicated to the Facilities Division.

You're right—we could also do much wider outreach to the academic community—something that has proven beneficial in the past. When Dean Blakely was on the Belmont oversight team, he took some of the rhetoric around the structural goals of Belmont and tried to make it real. He championed a vision of an Oxford-model school with separated buildings of different sizes in different parts of the campus, and no single administration building so you didn't have a command-and-control type school. But there was a lot of resistance to that. That experience, with Beth now cleanly in charge, however, has allowed us now to be open to that.

I would add that community involvement has been fostered—even if not to the scale of new construction in a small town—by maintenance. We sold the bond, first and foremost, for maintenance and repair. And there is a lot of local involvement from people saying, ‘Darn it, I've put up with that waterfall over the main building every time it rains for the last 15 years, and this bond is going to fix it!' People are really investing' themselves—from kids in South Central to alumni groups in the Northeast. 

Another piece of this puzzle that has shown the beginnings of a civic culture are the Primary Centers and a task force that has the Mayor, the Superintendent, the business community, and people from the past LEARN facilities group working together to try to bring things down to a smaller scale, with more facilities located in each and every community.


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