By Dana Bartholomew, Staff Writer | LA DAILY NEWS
The property at the corner of Saticoy Street and Canoga Avenue... (David Crane/Staff Photographer)
7/3/08 - CANOGA PARK - City officials are accusing the Los Angeles Unified School District of backing away from a promise to pay half the cost of a $6.6million community center for kids and senior citizens.
As a result, they say, city government has scrambled to pay the full cost of the community center at Tierra del Sol, where groundbreaking is expected this month. School officials, meanwhile, emphatically deny any such funding agreement took place.
In a scathing letter Monday expressing his "anger and frustration" to LAUSD board member Tamar Galatzan, City Councilman Dennis Zine accused district officials of breaking their word.
"I am deeply disappointed in the LAUSD's failure to deliver on a fiscal commitment personally made by you and your predecessor (Jon Lauritzen)," Zine wrote. "I will question the district's sincerity and veracity in future joint efforts to serve our mutual constituency."
Billed as "the Club Med of Affordable Housing," the award-winning Tierra del Sol was built in 2005 as a first-of-its-kind facility combining cut-rate apartments with a charter elementary school.
But the 12,000-square-foot community center, planned for the former city site at Canoga Avenue and Saticoy Street, was held up by a lack of money.
New Economics for Women, which founded and operates the apartments and school, insists LAUSD board members Galatzan and Lauritzen, who died in October, had agreed the school district would pay
half the center's cost. Jay Virata, regional administrator for the city's Community Redevelopment Agency in Canoga Park, said the school district agreed to pay $3.4 million toward the project.
Zine, who also wants to include senior citizens in the new community center, says a Tierra del Sol loan agreement spells out the school district's funding obligation.
"We had e-mails that they supported the project and have had many meetings to solidify the commitment, but the district did not finalize the agreement with us officially," said Bea Stotzer, a co-founder of New Economics for Women in Los Angeles.
"A promise is a promise, but with a politician, it gets us nowhere."
She said groundbreaking is expected in two weeks for the two-story community center to house child-care and social services.
Scheduled to open by fall 2009, it will be accessible to the general public.
Though the LAUSD has spent $21.8 million to build the New Academy in Canoga Park charter school, officials insist they never agreed to finance the community center at Tierra del Sol.
In a written statement, Galatzan said she met with Stotzer and school facilities officials last summer "to see if there was a way the project could be restructured so as to satisfy the district's concerns."
But in April, she said her chief of staff met with Zine and Stotzer to explain that L.A. schools were legally barred from providing funds for a community center.
"The center, as conceived, didn't have an educational purpose that we could see," said Thomas Waldman, Galatzan's chief of staff. In addition, he said he spoke with Lauritzen's former aides whom he quoted as saying there was no deal to fund the project.
John Creer, director of planning and development for the LAUSD's Facilities Division, said it was extremely rare for the district to fund a charter school, including the only known elementary school gym in the district.
He mentioned reference to the charter school, but not the community center, in a 300-page long-term "strategic execution plan" for all LAUSD building projects.
And he said Lauritzen told him he never promised to support the community center.
"We have never, never, never been a part of that project," he said. "That's why we make these (written plans), so we're very clear with what the scope of our projects are."
The city's Community Redevelopment Agency will pay $3.2 million toward the $6.6million community center, with the city's general budget picking up the rest.
The funding imbroglio illustrates mounting tension between Zine and LAUSD officials. He has informed them that the district will have to pay a fee if it uses the center.
"When they say they're going to do something, and pledge to do something, we take them at their word," he said. "Am I upset with the school district for backing out of the agreement? Yes.
"It forces me to come up with $3.4 million in funds that we could use elsewhere in the community."
FOUR LESSONS IN CIVICS FOR COUNCIL MEMBER ZINE, NEW & THE CRA:
- Boardmember Galatzan and late Boardmember Lauritzen are/were 1/7th of the LAUSD Board of Education - it takes a majority vote of the seven to commit the District to anything from buying a box of sporks to funding a community center.
- The school district commits bond funds by a} getting the voters to approve a project in bond language, b) then it gets put in a Strategic Execution Plan, c) then the Bond Oversight Committee advises on the scope and budget of the project and then d) the Board of Ed approves it. The first happens in the voting booth; the rest in open public meetings – not in e-mails and verbal agreements.
- "We had e-mails that they supported the project and have had many meetings to solidify the commitment, but the district did not finalize the agreement with us officially." That pretty much is the legal definition of 'not-an-agreement'.
- It helps if school construction bond funded projects have an educational purpose; the state government insists on it! To do otherwise is what in government parlance is called: "waste, fraud and abuse". - smf