September 1, 2001 - From the September, 2001 issue

LAUSD's Newest Facilities Czar Tries To Move Heaven & Earth

The facility woes of the Los Angeles Unified School District have been well documented. Its historic reliance on portable trailors and year-round classes as a mechanism for dealing with the ever-present (and growing) facility challenge has led to a school shortage of drastic proportions. In an attempt to slow the hemorrhaging and perhaps solve this catastrophic problem, the District has hired Capt. James McConnell away from the Navy to be the District's new Director of Facilities. TPR was pleased to sit down with Capt. McConnell and ask him for his candid impressions of LAUSD, how he plans on leading the division in its effort to build 85 new schools in 5 years and what his vision is in terms of creating a more effective, efficient and responsive school Facilities Dept. at L.A. Unified.

Capt. McConnell, immediately after your arrival at LAUSD you surveyed the LAUSD Facilities Department, excerpted in the New Schools • Better Neighborhoods Summer newsletter. You detailed in that survey your observations and offered the following facilities agenda: 1) Develop an execution plan; 2) Develop a professional team that can implement that plan; and 3) Establish credibility with the general public, the design and construction communities and the political establishment. We're now at the 1/2 way mark of your first year on this job; please give our readers a sense of what you've learned. Are your priorities still the same?

My assessment of the three divisions that I manage -New Construction, Existing Facilities/Modernization and Maintenance and Operation-still stands. And the priorities that I set out for the Department are in fact clearer in my mind now than they were just a few months ago.

The New Construction Division is now a very professional team which continues to do the things necessary to get this District in a position to build 85 new schools over the next 5 or 6 years.

However, I'm not happy with what I've found in the Existing Facilities/Modernization Division. Frankly, that Division is not being the kind of stewards of the public's trust that we need to be. We're 4 years into the 5-year Prop. BB allocation and we're only 45-percent executed, yet we're 60-percent expended. I can't allow those trends to continue.

The third area is Maintenance and Operations. This division is being moved under the Deputy for Facilities, a newly established position, to try to bring an outside set of eyes to the science of facilities maintenance. We spend $300 million a year in the maintenance of our buildings and I need to have greater confidence that we're spending that money with maximum effect.

You repeatedly mentioned financial accountability and evaluation in your assessment of whether the District is meeting its school facilities needs. You sound like you have a plan to both. Elaborate on what it will involve.

The plan flows from what I described as my first priority-develop the execution plan. For the first time, the New Construction Division has developed an execution plan which charts exactly what we're going to do, when we're going to do it, how much it's going to cost and where that money comes from. I've taken that information to our CFO and we've developed a general blueprint for how we will finance the gaps in funding over the next 5 or 6 years. The approach is sound and it's going to be fundamental to our success, but other than that I can't reveal the details yet.

Last spring, the Legislature's Chief Legislative Analyst, Elizabeth Hill, issued a stinging report noting the shortcomings of the State's capital outlay program utilized for school facilities funding. She also noted that the estimated present cost to address the pressing state school facility needs is about $30 billion, with the State's share exceeding $17 billion. As of right now, less than $2 billion is left statewide from the last State school construction bond. What are your thoughts re the LAO report? And what needs to be done at the state level to give urban district's like LAUSD the wherewithal to carry out their mandate?

I agree with the report in general, but one point specifically sticks out-it is impossible for LAUSD to manage a $2.7 billion construction program without an ongoing source of funds. As a result, school districts have to undertake financial strategies to carry the debt necessary to keep the funds flowing. The system may be right if you're trying to manage a bureaucratic program, but it's absolutely wrong if you're trying to manage $2.7 billion worth of construction.

This system limits my ability to further the LAUSD agenda. The way money is apportioned for deferred maintenance needs to be reexamined. Facilities management and construction isn't a high enough priority. And I feel strapped by state regulators and processes that, taken together, seem to push against our success.

Such criticisms are often read by the state legislature as whining from LAUSD, a district they believe has mismanaged its facilities mandate. Why is it that no State Legislators have picked up the torch from the LAO and championed reform?

I don't know, but I suspect that it's because these issues aren't central to those concerned about education at the state level. They should be, but they aren't.

In LAUSD's case, the Superintendent has made it clear that his priorities are instruction and construction-he can't succeed in one without the other. If you have crumbling infrastructure, the quality of education is lower. It's time to link those two threads and make the issue of school facilities central to the education debate in California.

The School Board has passed a master plan identifying 85 sites as appropriate for new schools. Obviously in a dense metropolis what you plan for and where and how you plan is going to be fairly important politically. Please elaborate on LAUSD's site selection process. Are there realistic opportunities for more joint-use of facilities and for siting new schools so they might be the centers of neighorhoods?

This City is absolutely paved. There's not a square inch available to us for schools. In order to site a school, we must be bold and creative. We have had to make hard decisions with regard to residential properties and commercial properties. And to that end, the New Construction Division has done a fabulous job identifying the required sites.

When I was a Seabee in the Navy our motto was, "We build to fight." I think at this point our motto at LAUSD is, "We fight to build." Whether it's at the state or the local level, we need to get these sites secured. We need to get them cleared environmentally. We need to get the designs completed. We need to identify the right contractor. And most importantly, we need to get this first phase of schools built.

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The site selection process, which is done for these 85 schools, has considered the need of building for our students and the needs of the community. Of these 85 schools, we have creatively incorporated the needs of the community with the overwhelming need to build schools in 12 joint-use opportunities. However, joint-use can be a difficult process due to the fact that in this densely populated urban city, parks are already under-resourced and short on space, so we can't always expect parks to give up land for school use.

However, as I travel around the City I gain greater appreciation for the fact that there are other opinions out there in describing what makes a good school. And when we get this first phase completed, options such as joint-use should and will be factored into the second and third phases of our construction program.

You mention the fact that the City is totally paved. There's been a lot of civic discussion about re-introducing the concept of planning at the city and statewide levels. Of course such discussions must be juxtaposed with the action of the LAUSD Board back in July which voted to exercise a little-known State law allowing LAUSD to exempt themselves from local zoning ordinances by adopting a resolution to that effect with a 2/3 vote. What does their action portend for future collaboration with cities, particularly with the emergence of L.A.'s system of Neighborhood Councils?

The resolution that was passed by the Los Angeles Unified School Board was a result of us working directly with the Director of Planning for the City of L.A., Con Howe.

What this means is that LAUSD will save an extraordinary amount of time since twice the work will not have to be done because public school buildings receive building permits from the State Architect, not the Department of Building & Safety. The practical effect of the action eliminates the need for the School District to file and secure approvals for conditional use permits and variances for school projects from the city since it receives approvals from the State.

We are working with all the cities that LAUSD serves to provide excellent facilities in a timely manner while balancing the overwhelming need to build schools and the cities' planning initiatives.

In the May issue of TPR we interviewed infill housing developer Richard Baron who said, "School districts are notorious for using rigid formulas that they claim are required by state law and regulation. Oftentimes it's just smoke and mirrors because the technical staff in the Board of Education doesn't like to deviate from their standard rules. We all know the mantra, ‘We need 40 acres, we've got to have so many parking spaces, we've got to have this and that and other.'" Is Baron right? Are you finding practical infill sites? Is there the legal flexibility to tailor-fit such sites to the needs of the neighborhoods and communities and the school district without regulatory reform?

One of LAUSD's strengths is that we have a great willingness to break away from the traditional ways of thinking and doing business. My position is, "If it's not illegal, immoral, unethical or stupid, we ought to pursue it." We're being aggressive and creative in pursuing these sites so that we can fulfill our mission of getting schools built.

Right now we are collaborating with the California Department of Education to revise urban guidelines for school construction. Approximately, 40 acres is what the CDE requires for building a comprehensive high school. However, they have recognized the challenges of building in an urban school district and have come up with a new table that allows us to build up rather than out, depending on the number of students. For example, now we can build comprehensive high schools on 12 acres and three or four stories high.

Please give our readers a status report on where LAUSD's Belmont Learning Center RFP is. Do hard cases, as is often said, make bad law? What are the environmental regulatory impacts of Belmont's politics on the challenges you must meet in L.A.?

The response to the environmental problems with Belmont was, simply stated, an overreaction. The process currently in place to make sure that a site is environmentally sound is almost onerous. What we need is to find a way that allows us to get these sites constructed at a fair cost over a reasonable time.

In hopes of doing that, the Superintendent has issued an RFP and seems resolved to finish Belmont as a learning center. Those proposals will be received in mid-September. And we'll review them and decide on what the next step will be. McConnell's opinion: Make it a school.

You have now adddressed the needs of the state. Let's now conclude with your summary of LAUSD's financial and physical needs over the next 7 to 10 years. What must be done? What needs to be built? How much is it going to cost? Is LAUSD willing and up to the challenge?

In my mind, everything we've talked about factors into an 18-year program, which will culminate in the creation of 200,000 seats. The first 6 years of that program will be the construction of 85 new schools and 73,000 new seats. That's in addition to the 52 major additions and renovations currently underway. That equates to a $2.7 billion investment over the next 6 years and an $8 billion investment if you extrapolate that out over the next 18 years.

With regard to the District's culture, the staff in place now is extremely supportive of this plan. And everyone in the LAUSD from the Board to the Superintendent wants to succeed. In many respects they realize that the future of LAUSD and, in many ways, the health of this City depends on it.

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