August 23, 2010

In July, LA School Officials Defended RFK Taj Mahal School K-12 Complex as ‘More Than Justified’

LArfkSchool2Well, it didn’t take to much digging to find people who think that the $578 million cost of the new Taj Mahal complex known as the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles (pictured at right; noted last night at NewsBusters and BizzyBlog) isn’t that big of a deal.

What I found makes me wonder why it took so long for waste of this magnitude to become a national story.

On July 9, at LA’s Daily News, Connie Llanos chronicled much of the story behind how costs spiraled out of control. Readers will have to go to the link to get that detail. In terms of the project’s final cost, Llanos found plenty of people willing to say that spending over $135,000 per seat is okey-dokey (bolds are mine):

RFK is LAUSD’s most costly campus – and it needs more cash

… District officials say the cost of the Robert F. Kennedy complex is more than justified if you consider its urban location, historical significance and expected community role.

“It has all the modern amenities, like an underground garage, a pool, a state-of-the-art auditorium…,” said James Sohn, LAUSD’s chief facilities executive. “In that context, cost of the schools is appropriate.”

The 23-acre Wilshire Boulevard lot will bring the park-starved neighborhood much-needed green space, including soccer fields and a state-of-the-art swimming pool. It also includes public art pieces and a marble mural memorial to Kennedy, who was running for president when he was gunned down in the hotel’s kitchen.

Still, some of the items purchased for the school have caught the attention of top district officials, such as talking benches designed by artists to commemorate the historic significance of the Ambassador Hotel and its famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub.

But the schools chief said small extravagances shouldn’t detract from seeing the school as a centerpiece for the community and the city.

From its inception, the Ambassador schools were intended to be one of the most elaborate campuses, funded through the district’s $20 billion voter-approved construction bond program.

School board member Steve Zimmer said he will look closely at the change orders that have been requested for the project. But he added that “if the true cost were $250,000 a seat, it would be worth every penny.”

… Charter school officials, however, said LAUSD’s construction costs were exorbitant.

“If you look at that cost per seat, that is three or four times what many charter schools are delivering in the Los Angeles area,” said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association.

Some context: The end of Llanos’s report contains comparative cost figures for other facilities in the LA area. Here are a few, and when they were built:

  • Staples Center: $375 million, 1999
  • Walt Disney Concert Hall: $274 million, 2003
  • Universal Studios backlot: $200 million, 2010
  • Downtown cathedral: $190 million, 2002

More context: Earlier this year, New Trier, a relatively well-off school district in suburban Chicago, “known for its large spending per student,” proposed building a new high school for its 3,100 students at a cost of $174 million. Even though that figure is about 60% less per seat than LA’s RFK, locals characterized it as a “Taj Mahal” project. One Chicago TV station covering the proposal simply asked: “Are you kidding me?” Voters resoundingly rejected the new high school by a margin of 62%-38%.

Keep in mind that all of this is occurring as both California and Los Angeles are on the verge of financial collapse.

Yet another shocker: Llanos writes that RFK’s cost is “40 percent higher than the average school built in the central Los Angeles area over the past two years.” That’s all?

From here, it looks like LAUSD got its $20 billion in bond money and immediately set out to burn through it all as quickly as possible.

Prediction: Ten years from now, if not less, we’re going to be seeing stories about how high building maintenance and energy costs are stretching the district’s finances. Cry me a river.

Cross-posted at


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