A steel tower wrapped in a spiraling ribbon is one of the most striking features of a new arts high school set to open next year.
Its $230 million price tag is another.
The Los Angeles High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, with space for some 1,600 students, most from surrounding low-income neighborhoods, is the architectural crown jewel of the district’s ambitious $20 billion building campaign.
Its spacious studios and 995-seat theater encased in austere concrete are enough to make anybody wish they were a young clarinetist in the district.
Supporters call the five-acre campus a beacon for a reformed educational system, a magnet for good teachers, and a means of raising dismal student performance in the nation’s second-largest school district.
“Do these kids deserve this school? Absolutely,” said Monica Garcia, board president of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Critics, however, see the school as a wasteful extravagance for a district where more than a quarter of the 700,000 students remain in temporary classrooms and many existing buildings are in dire need of renovations and repairs.
“It’s ludicrous to be spending that much money on one school,” said parent Diana Chapman, who helps organize after-school programs at her son’s middle school in the city’s San Pedro area, about 25 miles from the new campus. “About every school I know needs help.”
The price tag of the much-maligned Belmont Learning Center is approaching $400 million as it prepares to open in September as the renamed Vista Hermosa Learning Center.
Construction was stymied several times over the past 15 years by revelations that officials had approved building the school atop explosive pockets of methane gas and the discovery of an active earthquake fault beneath the site.
Two years ago, the school board was thinking far outside the traditional box-shape design of school buildings when it gave final approval to the seven-structure arts high school.
Building its way out of a mess
The sharp, clean lines of the architecture contrast with the mess the district is trying to build its way out of.
Public school funding in the state took a hit in 1978 with a voter-approved measure that limited property tax rate increases. Several districts are hard-pressed to attract and retain quality teachers and maintain academic performance standards.
In the Los Angeles district, less than 70 percent of students graduated in 2006, the last year for which data are available.
In addition, severe overcrowding at many of its 1,190 schools have forced about 200,000 students to attend classes in temporary structures and compelled many campuses to operate on schedules that shave weeks off the school year.
The problems led to an unsuccessful takeover attempt last year by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that would have given him more control over the district’s budget and curriculum.
The district began a school-building binge in 2001 using $20.3 billion from four separate bond measures approved by voters. Seventy-two schools have been built so far, with another 60 planned by 2012, district facilities chief Guy Mehula said.
The rising cost of building materials and labor are to blame for the increased cost, Mehula said.
Officials initially budgeted about $70 million to build a conventional high school with a more basic design. Its makeover into an art school — originally expected to cost around $120 million — was promoted by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.
Former school board member David Tokofsky said he voted for the redesign because he thought Broad, a longtime financial supporter of school programs and area cultural institutions, would contribute more to construction costs.
“I’m all for an arts school as part of the cultural spinal cord of downtown, but right now it’s a spinal tap on the construction fund because we expected to get outside monies,” Tokofsky said.
Broad declined an interview request through his foundation’s spokeswoman, Karen Denne.
She said the philanthropist promised no more money to the arts school than the $3.1 million he has already contributed for construction and the $1.9 million he has pledged toward the salary of a full-time fundraiser and other operating expenses.
She said Broad is open to giving more money once the school has a principal and curriculum is in place.
Lawrence O. Picus, who directs the University of Southern California’s Center for Research in Education Finance, said well-appointed schools like the arts campus are attractive to good teachers who could help boost academic performance.
But he said districts in Seattle and Jacksonville, Fla., have shown significant improvement by recruiting and retaining better teachers and revising curriculums, not through construction drives.
‘This is for the whole community’
The arts school sits on the highest point of downtown’s Bunker Hill on the edge of a cultural district that includes other architectural gems like the Museum of Contemporary Art and Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The district plans to work with those venues to offer students internships and recruit performers and artists to teach.
Francisco Torrero, who has three daughters in public schools, praised the district for building the campus for working-class families who live in nearby neighborhoods.
“The arts in Los Angeles are viewed as only for the elite class,” said Torrero, whose daughters include a violin-playing fifth-grader who may want to attend the arts school. “This is not for the elite class: this is for the whole community.”