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High School’s Price Tag Hits $400M

Fri September 07, 2007 - West Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

LOS ANGELES (AP) When a much anticipated high school finally opens in 2008, nine years behind schedule, math students will likely need special calculators to type in all the zeros of the enormous price tag.

The Belmont Learning Complex final tab will top $400 million, possibly giving it the title of America’s most expensive high school.

The school, now called Vista Hermosa, was conceived in a school district that at the time lacked building expertise. The Los Angeles Unified School District has since put together the nation’s largest school construction program, but the hemorrhaging continues at Belmont. Recent work expected to cost approximately $111 million will reach nearly $200 million instead.

“They probably could have built three more high schools, maybe four” with all the money spent, said City Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the area. “That’s a very painful reality. I think 70 percent of the cost was not necessary.”

Still, Reyes supports the effort in part because the latest version of the project adds badly needed open space, including a soccer field and nature park, funded by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

The first phase of the project ended in January 2000 when the school board decided to stop building the half-finished school over safety concerns. The school sits atop an oil field, and a full environmental study hadn’t been made before the start of construction.

Enter Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor who became district superintendent later that year

“I felt that school was salvageable,” said Romer, who left the district last fall. “And it was important to get rid of that scar on the community’s surface.”

Romer brought in an outside panel that concluded the school could be built safely if a fan and venting system were installed. Romer also argued it would be cheaper to finish Belmont than to sell the land and start building a new school.

He got approval from the school board in March 2002 to hire a nascent nonprofit that would finish the project for $87 million.

But the restart stalled with the discovery of an earthquake fault on the site. Analysts eventually determined students would be safe if buildings did not straddle the fault.

The delays had added costs.

The new price rose to $111 million of which $78 million would be construction expenses.

When the project went out to bid two years later, the results were nowhere near the estimates. Hard construction costs alone swelled by $66 million over 2003 numbers.

The winning bidder, Hensel Phelps Construction Co., also won the only other high school project put out to bid in 2005. It agreed to build a 2,400-seat campus, known informally as the Eller Media school, for $99 million. The developer set the price for the 2,600-seat Vista Hermosa at tens of millions of dollars more.

But that still wasn’t enough, as a string of problems emerged.

In January, the district agreed to pay an additional $1.4 million to replace the fire sprinkler system, which had been left to rust in the years that the buildings were abandoned.

District officials also said some of the work overseen by the previous developer and contractor was faulty. As a cost-saving measure, the previous builders were allowed to inspect much of their own work.

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