School Fiasco in South LA

After the Watts Riots of 1965, Los Angeles city officials pledged to build a job-training center for to the community. Forty years -- and millions of dollars later -- the center still isn’t finished, and some critics see it as one more costly testament to the incompetence of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Are they right?

Here’s what an exclusive NBC4 Investigation discovered.

The school is named for one of its chief sponsors, Representative Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). But those who know it best say this still incomplete job training center in South Los Angeles is all surface and no substance.

“ It is like you have Rolls Royce quality with skateboard facilities,” said Principal Janet Clark

Dr. Clark is now bravely speaking out against her own superiors at LAUSD who, she said, have betrayed the dream the school was meant to be.

“It is criminal to have beautiful buildings,” she told NBC4, “ with the potential those buildings have and that equipment to be so dysfunctional they can’t use it.”

“We’re not going to accept it,” said Dr. Ernie Smith. He belongs to a community group struggling to force accountability on LAUSD officials who, he maintained, have turned the school into the worst bargain taxpayers’ money can buy.

“There’s corruption, there’s pollution,” Smith declared. “They’re running around like rats, roaches, when the lights come on -- when we expose it.”

Clark recalled the many poor conditions plaguing the childcare and nurse education center when it opened some time ago. “Fecal matter was actually sitting under the toilets,” she said.

Early on, a rooftop air conditioner fell over and pumped water into the walls, Clark noted, and a nearby gas vent spewed noxious fumes into the air conditioning system and through the building.

“I had paramedics over just about once a week, if not twice a week carting people out,” she said, “because they had headaches and upset stomachs and all kind of things, passing out in the building, because of the air quality.”

“Come to find out,” added community watchdog Ernie Smith, “the fans in the air conditioning system were put in backwards.”

Phase Two of construction, launched in 2007, yielded what Clark described as an equally faulty air-quality system in the four new buildings. “None of them,” she said, “have decent heating and ventilation.”

NBC4 uncovered internal LAUSD photographs that document still other problems in Phase Two projects: crooked building foundations, non-connecting crossbeams, burst pipes, flooding, and even rock pockets in cement.

Clark cited grading problems in one area that, she said, requires sandbagging one building during rainstorms to keep water from flowing in.

She also said a new electrical transformer has proved too weak for power requirements, and that new toilets in the meeting hall have too little water pressure to flush completely, leaving refuse in the bowl.

In the Culinary Arts and Gerontology Center, refrigerators and other kitchen devices, which should be earthquake proof, “aren’t properly locked against the wall,” she continued. “The sinks are leaking. It spatters onto the drains and ends up on the floor.”

The gas welding center is still plagued with poor overhead lighting, according to Clark, who noted that leaks in the ceiling still threaten to short-circuit power boxes. “So there’s the possibility of electrocution.”

Worst of all, she added, there is not enough electrical power to all of the welding vaults and safety devices, and no adequate exhaust system to remove toxic fumes from the welding.

“I believe strongly,” she said,” this is foreseeable negligence.”

Despite the ventilation problems, she said the district ordered her to open the welding center anyway. “They told me to keep the doors open, the windows open and it would be okay for the students.”

Clark demanded to have these instructions in writing, she told NBC4, and when the district refused, she refused to admit any students. “Why would I want them to weld in an environment that would kill them?” she insisted

Clark said that correcting all the design and construction screw-up’s has nearly doubled the overall price of the project – to nearly $40 million. When asked who is responsible, she said, “I blame the system for not being willing to stand up and do what they’re supposed to do.”

Dr. Ernie Smith, speaking for the community’s informal oversight group, assigned the lion’s share of the blame to LAUSD’s Existing Facilities Division long headed by the recently retired Bruce Kendall. “They have sent people out here,” Smith said, “who have deliberately sabotaged efforts to get things right.”

Dr. Clark recalled an instance when quality control inspectors for the district even admitted they couldn’t honestly report on the problems they’d detected as they’re supposed to do. “They told me,” she said, “ if they did their job they would be fired because they delayed the progress.”

Earlier this year, LAUSD’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) praised the principal contractor for the project, declaring in an official audit that Summit Builders has “constructed the project in accordance with specifications.”

But after NBC4 began its own investigation, the OIG did an about face and announced in May that Summit was guilty of “poor workmanship”— a finding that echoed confidential LAUSD evaluations, which NBC4 obtained.

The OIG was careful to add, however, that his report was “not an audit” and some critics saw it as simply a hasty effort to blunt NBC4’s own findings and shift the blame from the district to the contactor. Clark said she believes his reports are watered down.

Meantime, she has discovered that many of her strongest supporters among the LAUSD’s working consultants and inspectors have been barred by district officials from working with her. “They banished people,” she says, ”who were trying to do it correctly.”

Does Clark consider herself a crusader? Expressing surprise at the question, she replied, “If I don’t speak out, who will? The people have no voice.”

Congresswoman Maxine Waters declined to comment on this report. So did the contractor, Summit Builders and the district’s now retired project manager, Bruce Kendall.

The LAUSD offered a written statement claiming that the district has responded to changing construction requirements while "keeping the delivery schedule required for opening." It also said -- despite denials from Dr. Clark -- that the air quality in the welding center has been tested and is safe.

Here is that statement:


The recent major capital improvements to the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center have made it into a world-class center for occupational education in childcare occupations, licensed vocational nursing, certified nursing, welding, general construction, automotive trades, culinary arts and other fields that can assist local residents in preparing for good-paying careers. All major construction projects have challenges to overcome during the duration of the project. This project team remained focused on delivering the project on time for the school opening ceremonies in September 2008. They were able to include significant increases to the scope of the project that were requested after construction had already started, while keeping the delivery schedule required for school opening. Their responsiveness to these new requirements allowed the size of the welding shop to be doubled and four additional hydraulic auto lifts to be added to the building so more deserving students in the area could be trained. When the increased number of welding stations did not produce the expected ventilation rates, a plan was quickly developed that allowed half of the stations to remain in operation while the mechanical engineer developed a new design. That redesign effort is underway and a separate safety inspection has verified that air quality in the spaces meets all safety standards. The school is open, students are in class learning new trades, and any issues that arise after occupancy of any new building will be addressed and corrected.

LAUSD Facilities Services Division

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