August 22, 2010

O, M, G — Price Tag for One New LA K-12 Complex: $578 Mil (Update: Remembering New Trier, LA’s Poor Performance)

money_down_toilet2Topside Update, August 23: With Drudge having this as his top story since last night (and likely much of today), and an astounding 5,400-plus comments (as of 7:30 a.m.) at the AP story below as carried at Yahoo!, I get the sense that this story may be a wake-up tipping point.

Can anyone reasonably doubt after reading about the nationwide school construction cost excesses described below that Tea Partiers’ concerns about dangerously out-of-control government spending are valid?

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Call it “No Contractor Left Behind.”

The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles, apparently opening soon, will serve roughly 4,200 students in grades K-12. Its cost is coming in at $578 million, or over $140,000 per student ($2.8 million per 20-student classroom).

This is the LA Unified District’s most flagrant example of its Taj Mahal obsession, and it is far from the only one. Also, as the Associated Press’s Christina Hoag reported early Sunday evening, LA is not the only place where the Taj Mahal complex is in vogue:

The K-12 complex to house 4,200 students has raised eyebrows across the country as the creme de la creme of “Taj Mahal” schools, $100 million-plus campuses boasting both architectural panache and deluxe amenities.

“There’s no more of the old, windowless cinderblock schools of the ’70s where kids felt, ‘Oh, back to jail,’” said Joe Agron, editor-in-chief of American School & University, a school construction journal. “Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning.”

Not everyone is similarly enthusiastic.

“New buildings are nice, but when they’re run by the same people who’ve given us a 50 percent dropout rate, they’re a big waste of taxpayer money,” said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution who sits on the California Board of Education. “Parents aren’t fooled.”

At RFK, the features include fine art murals and a marble memorial depicting the complex’s namesake, a manicured public park, a state-of-the-art swimming pool and preservation of pieces of the original hotel (where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated).

Partly by circumstance and partly by design, the Los Angeles Unified School District has emerged as the mogul of Taj Mahals.

The RFK complex follows on the heels of two other LA schools among the nation’s costliest – the $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, which opened in 2008, and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School that debuted in 2009.

The pricey schools have come during a sensitive period for the nation’s second-largest school system: Nearly 3,000 teachers have been laid off over the past two years, the academic year and programs have been slashed. The district also faces a $640 million shortfall and some schools persistently rank among the nation’s lowest performing.

Los Angeles is not alone, however, in building big. Some of the most expensive schools are found in low-performing districts – New York City has a $235 million campus; New Brunswick, N.J., opened a $185 million high school in January.

Memo to Mr. Agron: We’d be more impressed with these ultra-costly “impressive environment(s) for learning” if there was tangible evidence that an impressive amount of learning was actually taking place.

Somehow, it seems that we get to hear about these price tags in the media only after the schools are finished or nearly finished.

It would be interesting to know what the cost of maintaining these Taj Mahals will be. My, uh, educated guess is “really excessive.”

Let’s make that Ms. Hoag’s homework. Unfortunately, these costs will become a permanent burden on already beleaguered taxpayers.

Let’s also find out if part of the Taj Mahal motivation around the country is the desire, with the help of apparently limitless tax dollars (readers here know better; school officials apparently don’t), to put even more pressure on private schools by making them appear relatively unattractive, even though on balance more real learning takes place inside of them.

Please — Can we dispense with the claptrap about the “under-resourced” and “starving” public sector once and for all?

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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UPDATE, August 23, 6:55 a.m. — Recall that about six months ago, yours truly posted about a Taj Mahal high school in the Chicago suburb of New Trier, Illinois. This Wikipedia entry describes New Trier as “known for its large spending per student, academic excellence, and its athletic, drama, visual arts, and music programs.” The school was originally brought to my attention almost a year ago by a reader who was outraged about its Obama-obsessive indoctrination.

Since freshmen go to a separate facility, New Trier’s proposed new high school was for about 3,100 students, or 3/4 of the high school’s 4,129 enrollment.

The price tag for New Trier’s proposed Taj Mahal was “only” $174 million. That’s about $56,000 per student, or $1.1 million per 20-student classroom. The per-student cost of LA’s RFK schools is 2-1/2 times larger.

At the time TV station CBS2 in Chicago ran a report on New Trier’s proposed high school. Their question was, “Are you kidding me?” Voter agreed, rejecting it by 62%-38%.

No doubt many LA residents who are learning about the cost of the RFK schools are substituting a less than clean word for “kidding.”

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UPDATE 2, August 23, 7:45 a.m.: Mark Tapscott at the Washington Examiner, on LA schools’ performance (links were in original) –

And bear in mind that they are building this school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) which has serious problems that have been largely unaddressed. Earlier this year, L.A. weekly reported that in the last decade “officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district’s 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance — and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each.” The Los Angeles Times also reported in July that one in three high school students in the district drops out — and the LAUSD has the second worst high school graduation rate in the country. Of the 39 worst schools in California, LAUSD has 23 of them.

But I’m sure blowing $578 million on a single school is going to fix all this, right?

The price tag would be unacceptable even if LAUSD was the best school district in the country. That this kind of money is being wasted in one of the worst is really almost too much to bear.

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7 Comments

  1. [...] Schools in Los Angeles pictured at right ($578 million, noted last night at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog) isn’t that big of a [...]

    Pingback by BizzyBlog — August 23, 2010 @ 9:03 am

  2. Knowing wikipedia as I do, I wonder if there is an ulterior motive in the articles touting of the schools reputation for “academic excellence” and it’s “large spending per student?” Hmmm…

    Comment by zf — August 23, 2010 @ 9:16 am

  3. Oops, accidentally left this out:

    Also, if New Trier is doing so well, what did they need another Taj Mahal school for???

    Comment by zf — August 23, 2010 @ 9:18 am

  4. #2, there may be motive for touting it, but as I understand it from someone who lives there, both items are true, despite an obsession, documented here from time to time, with indoctrination and PC.

    Comment by TBlumer — August 23, 2010 @ 9:20 am

  5. #4, Okay, assuming that the individual is 100% correct, that does not necessarily mean it’s a case of causation instead of mere correlation. Perhaps they simply have less red tape than most, better teachers, more motivated students and whatnot and it may not necessarily be the high spending itself that is breeding the excellence.

    (Also, if the school is really obsessed with PC and indoctrination, they might be breeding a generation of educated idiots, shallow smart on the outside, dumb deep inside.)

    I point this out because I can already see the liberals using this as evidence that the solution to solving our educational woes is simply throwing more money at the problem (and for a group who supposedly hate money, they sure enjoy spending it).

    One exception (again, ignoring the possibly of mere correlation and not causation) does not a rule make. I can name many smaller schools who spend less and have better performances than larger schools who spend lavishly. Also, as Cato and others pointed out, increases on per spending on students has not increased public school academic excellence on the aggregate.

    The reason private schools do so much better than public on the whole is because they have to compete with other private schools, they have much less bureaucracy and red tape, and they manage their resources better due to the inherently more flexible and dynamic nature of private entities. It is not simply because they have more cash (and considering all of this, I’m not even sure if that’s even true anymore.)

    Comment by zf — August 23, 2010 @ 9:40 am

  6. #5, points well taken, and believe me, my contact in the area is very, very concerned, as are others, or they wouldn’t have nuked the Taj Mahal proposal.

    My sense is that NT is slowly but surely declining into non-excellence.

    As to your #3, you surely are aware of the edifice complex — as well as the jealous “need” to have the neatest, nicest set of toys, esp if one of the nearby districts has just built something just a little bit nicer than or even almost as nice as what you already have.

    Comment by TBlumer — August 23, 2010 @ 9:58 am

  7. [...] I’ll bet the LA School District has $100 mil to spare. They’re certainly spending money like there’s no limit. Build it there. Comments [moderated] [...]

    Pingback by BizzyBlog — August 23, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

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