August 1, 2003 - From the August, 2003 issue

LAUSD's General Counsel Tasked with Keeping District's Silo-Like Facilities Program On Track

Last November, voters passed both the LAUSD's $3.3 billion school facilities bond and a $13 billion statewide school bond. With that cash available, the District now faces the challenge of building 100+ new schools in some of the city's densest neighborhoods. Such a tall order requires an immense amount of legal wrangling. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Kevin Reed, LAUSD's Acting General Counsel, in which he discusses the strengths and weakness of the facilities program.

Kevin, as LAUSD's new acting general counsel, share with our readers what your priorities and challenges are re the School District's often critiqued facilities program?

My first priority is to make sure the office is functioning and providing support to the superintendent. In the facilities field, I'm trying to build 120,000 new seats, working on the focus for the next record bond measure, and just trying to wrap my arms around a 100-plus member organization -- to understand all of its moving parts and make sure that they continue to operate as effectively as they have been for the last couple of years.

Securing state and local approvals for new and modernized facilities by a public school district like LA Unified is a very complex process and is clearly daunting and loaded with legal landmines. Given this complexity, is it actually possible for the district both to manage the legal issues and still allow good policy to drive local siting, land acquisition, school design and construction decisions?

Facilities construction takes 40% or more of the legal budget, not a lot of which is for litigation at this point. By and large, the folks that Jim McConnell has assembled to operate the construction know what they're doing and have done a good job of setting up contracts that work with professionals that know what they're doing.

On the contractual side, the eminent domain work is very daunting. As you well know, the amount of land that the district is assembling to build these schools is enormous. About 600 different matters have resulted in negotiations that reached a point where the district needed to adopt a resolution of necessity and proceed in eminent domain. Almost all of those have resulted in settlements that work well for the district, well in line with budgeted projections of what the land would have cost. In addition, we've done well for homeowners and for businesses whose land we've acquired. But, making sure that the process continues to run smoothly does tend to take up a considerable amount of the resources.

Before becoming LAUSD's acting general counsel, you represented the district in litigation arising from the state and districts facilities program. Could you please comment on two significant lawsuits -- the Godinez case of two years ago and the current Williams case -- which assert that the state's allocation of school and facilities dollars have been inequitable?

With the Godinez case having been settled in December of 2000, that's functionally a fait accompli now. The last of the Prop 20 money was used in July and August of 2003, and the Los Angeles Unified School District was highly successful in getting access to a fair share of that funding. We then worked on the provisions in AB 16, which was our attempt to fix the state bond rather that to litigate it after the fact. The district was able to put in almost $2 billion worth of applications for state money, which can also be used for the Charter Schools fund. We'll know in August how successful we were in those applications. A number of other districts are also applying for those funds, so the program is going to need to work for a lot of districts.

The Williams case presents a number of different challenges to the district. It raises issues that the district cares very much about with respect to whether the state has treated schools in this district the same as schools in other districts. We intervened in that case back in 2000, and have continued to hope for a multiple settlement that ends the contentious matters of litigation. But, I don't know if that's possible.

What's at stake in the Williams case for the School District?

What's at stake is the state's role in school oversight with respect to many different projects, including facilities. Our position is that the state needs to do more to help with the resources available to school districts to make sure that schools are not overcrowded, decent, safe and sanitary. At the same time, we want to make sure that the district is allowed to engage -- using its flexibility, its wisdom, and its in to building schools and keeping schools open and safe -- without having to respond to another layer of Sacramento-based bureaucracy. That's proven to be a real intellectual and legal challenge. Trial is set for next fall, but I think it's everyone's hope that we might find a way out of it.

What is the litigation outcome in Williams that LAUSD desires?

We'd like an outcome that makes clear that funding is an important aspect, that the availability of resources is a necessary element of any system of state education, and that allows school districts to operate schools in a way that provides a great education for kids.

A not so positive outcome would be one in which the state is effectively given the responsibility to set up new bureaucratic hurdles that would reduce the school board and superintendent to note takers and clipboard holders, merely responding to Sacramento's set standards that may make no sense for individual schools.

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How well is LAUSD Phase II Facilities Program performing? And, looking ahead to the next bond measure, what are the District's continuing objectives re facilities and how realistically should the public measure the success of the facilities team is in meeting those objectives?

I'd have to say that the jury's still out on Phase II. We've had conversations in the last few years about how difficult it was for the district to get through the process and get the schools sited, approved, and into the funding mix. To look to the next round, I feel that once we get the basics under our belt, we'll really be able to make an improvement. I know that the Community Outreach program is engaged in a massive system of meetings to try and engage the community in the process of siting schools so that these facilities can become an integral part of the community.

A big challenge for us right now is trying to understand the extent to which we can use our existing facilities more effectively. I know that the superintendent is very focused right now on trying to create smaller building communities, not just in the new schools that are opening, but also in existing campuses. We are looking at how we can turn a 4,000 seat high school into a conglomerate of eight 500-student academies in which 20 to 25 teachers have a direct and immediate relationship with 500 students. To create that opportunity on the campuses that are opening, and re-create that opportunity on campuses that we currently operate, is making things a little more complex. But, I think they're working through the process.

Elaborate on the district's planning for the next school bond slated for the March ballot. What will be its objectives and how might it differ from the last $3 billion facilities bond measure?

The district expects to be out to the voters again this March with another bond measure, the exact size of which remains to be decided. It could very well be approximately the size of Measure K ($3.35 billion). To build what we're building right now with BB and Measure K and the State funds that 1A and 47 have made available give us a realistic opportunity to create about 120,000 seats. That still leaves us at least 85,000 seats shy of being able to operate two-semester neighborhood schools in this district, which is the stated goal of the school district and the superintendent. Those seats are going to be harder and harder to site. It becomes more and more expensive as we go along. Even with a $3 billion program I don't think we can get there.

The real challenge for the district right now in the planning process is trying to figure out what the next milestone is-where to focus next as we try to march towards meeting the need of those 200,000 seats.

Kevin, in a number of forums, most recently NSBN's Getty Symposium on Schools as Centers of Neighborhood Vitality, you've commented on how desirable, but challenging, it is both to leverage housing, open space, health care, and library bonds with school bonds, and to build joint use schools in our dense inner-city and inner-suburban neighborhoods. Why are these worthy objectives so difficult to realize? What are the prospects for these objectives being more achievable with the next bond?

I would say the number one reason it's so difficult to do is because the school district in LA is doing what a lot of the school districts in the state avoided doing-building schools where the kids are and where the population growth is taking place. Logically, those are the densest, most developed parts of the city. Finding the sites for schools in a way that minimizes disruption of the chronically unavailable housing stock is the constant challenge of the district. We were successful in the last round in working collaboratively with the Department of Education to reduce expectation with respect to how big a footprint has to be for a school. Talk to the typical school planner in Sacramento and they'll tell you a high school is supposed to be 40 acres. We can do it at eight-to-twelve acres, but even that is hard to come by. While we're out there looking for the land, the city is looking for sites on which build libraries, fire stations, and police headquarters. This obviously requires that we multi-task the facilities that we create. But state law was never designed to do that kind of work. Search the education code for the term "joint-use," and it appears frequently, but it is never really defined and has not been widely attempted.

There's a stove-pipe mentality when it comes to planning in this state, where housing developers plan housing, park people plan parks, school people build schools, and legislators talk about how great it would be if we could all work together. Nobody's created that infrastructure for joint-use. Nobody's looked down into the regulations and into the rules that absolutely govern how the school district has to operate in order to get the state funding. The multi-tasking of a building just requires a lot of multi-tasking at the front end, thinking through those problems and trying to have these conversations. But, it can be tough.

Is LAUSD-bound up as it is in state rules, regulations and oversight-so constrained that it's impossible or impractical for you as general counsel to be proactive in breaking through regulatory barriers and in crafting recommendations for regulatory reform that support muti-tasking objectives-schools as centers of neighborhoods?

No, I think this job has actually been a great opportunity to get involved. One of the things that I have enjoyed most about the four weeks I've been here is that I get to deal with the nitty-gritty of a problem. One of the most exciting parts of the job is to try and figure out how to reconfigure situations that appear to be untenable in order to allow us to achieve the objectives we want to achieve. We can't create schools as fast as we need them in most overcrowded areas. To solve this problem, we have to be creative, which is both challenging and satisfying.

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