Educating a school population bigger than the total population of most cities almost seems like the easy part. In addition to LAUSD's core educational mission, the district is also in the midst of the country's largest public works project, and its program to build over 150 schools makes it the largest developer in L.A. County. For insight into this massive undertaking and the prospects for making the district's new schools true neighborhood assets, TPR was pleased to speak with new Superintendent David Brewer.
You are overseeing one of the largest public works projects in the nation: a school building program amounting to about $19 billion for both new schools and retrofits of old schools. What is LAUSD's overall vision for these facilities?
Our overall goal is to create neighborhood schools for all children and, by law, to have them on a traditional calendar by 2012. But even after we build all of these schools we are still going to have about 200,000 portables.
We are going after some additional money up in Sacramento because of the formula that the state uses to give us matching funds. Right now that formula disadvantages urban districts that are experiencing a decline in enrollment. It over-compensates and has basically taken away a lot of the matching funds from 1D that we need. Karen Bass is carrying legislation to try to correct that formula.
We are seven or eight years into the districts bond-funded facilities program. What has the program accomplished so far, and what remains to be accomplished?
We've built 65 schools so far of a total of 145 new schools. We are delivering almost one a month. We've completed most of the 59 modernization projects that were associated with the bond. We are well on our way, and we are on track.
The biggest problem is the escalation of construction costs. It started at a little over $200 per square foot. The last bid we received was $617 per square foot. That's another reason that we get those matching funds from the state, which, right now, amounts to about $1.6 billion. The escalation in construction cost has been unprecedented, not driven just by us but by the other construction projects with the community colleges and Downtown with all the condos going up. It is getting to the point where we are receiving only one bid for some of these schools.
You recently participated in a New Schools Better Neighborhoods symposium and spoke generally about your wish to build smaller, joint-use, neighborhood-centered schools. We carried interviews in the past with former State Architect Steven Castellanos, former Health Director Richard Jackson, a host of urban school superintendents, and community and school reform leaders about the need for such schools. Most lamented that LAUSD was not building its facilities as you wish. How do you re-orient the district's facilities and real estate deparments to achieve this goal?
First of all, you have to have the land and the property. You can't spread yourself out too far. If there is one onerous process that I have seen, it is going into neighborhoods and declaring eminent domain in order to create schools. We are going to continue to work on creating small schools. Right now we have 136 small learning communities. We are going to add another 179 small learning communities this fall. That is going to give us over 315.
I am exploring partnerships right now with entities like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs to come on our campuses as we build these schools and build some joint-use facilities. A classic example is the Boys and Girls Club at a middle school in Santa Clarita. That is a beautiful facility-it's about 223,000 square feet with a gymnasium and a classroom that the middle school also uses. That is an excellent model, paid for using a combination of district funds, school district funds, city funds, and the Boys and Girls Club as private donors. That, to me, is the ideal for community partnership.
You've spent time at the Santee Education Complex, which was L.A.'s first new high school in almost two decades. From day one there have been serious gang issues on that campus. Some have complained that sitting and design are a contributor to the school's problems. Are they wrong?
We have a very aggressive principal there that has basically neutralized the gang issue. He has engaged that community to help him. The students themselves had formed something called a "Peace Committee."
The number of gang-related incidents has decreased dramatically since the students said that they needed a bus to come in front of that school rather than two blocks away where they had to walk up a gang gantlet to get to the MTA bus stop. Plus, the students said they wanted that bus to run from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. because they felt safer at school and they could do homework and safe activities at school.
Do you think the social unrest that arose at Santee High will be settled with the change of a bus stop?
No. Let's back up a little bit. The gang issue is outside of the school. We've documented that. Clearly some of the students in the school are gang members, and that is a reality we have to deal with. On the average we have 3.3 violent incidents per 1,000 inside of our schools as opposed to 36.4 incidents per 1,000 outside of school. We have not solved the gang problem by changing the bus stop at Santee. But we provided safer passage.
The gang issue is a persistent, community problem. We have to attack that as a community. One of the reasons I wanted to look at Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and YWCAs on our campuses is to provide those safe havens into the evening at facilities where children can remain and receive enrichment programs, tutoring, and a safe environment.
Introducing YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs to LAUSD campuses is the mission of an almost decade-long effort by education reformers. Unfortunately, there very few documented LAUSD successes. Is the facilities division now embracing such opportunities?
First of all, our approach now is different because of the talent that we put into the facilities division. Second, I don't agree that it's going to take ten years to get a Boys and Girls Club on a campus, because I have already seen that model. We have 52 joint-use agreements in place with another 64 underway. We need partners and people who are willing to work with us to facilitate some of these joint use offers that we have out there.
We in academia and the private and public sectors all in live in silos. Do you assume that the $19 billion in bonds that the voters have approved for school facilities is literally just for more classrooms, or is it also available to build community-centered schools? Do you think the voters said with their votes, "It's the school district's money, and it can only be used for more classrooms?"
If I have extra space on my campuses, then I am more than willing to allow those spaces to be used in a partnership with the community. When I am not using the space, for example in the evenings or on the weekends, the community is more than welcome to use those spaces, as long as there is a safe zone around the school so there is no vandalism to the school and to the extent that if they are using a field-baseball, soccer, or football-that they participate in the refurbishment of that field because of their use. To that extent we are fine.
Here is the key point, though: in some cases we can get community partners, but they do not want to pay for operating that space after school areas or to help pay for the recapitalization of those spaces. That is where we have encountered some problems.
But the primary goal of the money that the public provides for this district is to build facilities to use in terms of the classroom. To the extent that we build athletic fields, that is a part of curriculum and instruction as well, and those are the target areas for joint use, etc.
L.A. County's superintendent of schools has said that what we need on our campuses is more grandmothers than cops, and that education facilities should be designed to invite the community onto the campus during the day. Does LAUSD subscribe to her priorities?
Part of our parent engagement program is parent-led teams. To the extent that there are grandmothers, aunts, and friends, etc., to help them in the education of their children, I welcome that. I just met with Secretary Alphonso Jackson of HUD, and we are looking to go one step further. Many parents, grandparents, etc., would prefer to have us come to their neighborhoods to work them. We are looking at creating parent centers inside certain housing developments, where we send teachers inside to provide training, for example, in family literacy.
In terms of parent centers being inside of our schools, I am in full agreement with that, and I'll take that one step further: to the extent that we can, we will keep them open at night to enable the parents to come in and receive some of our literacy programs as well as other parent empowerment programs.
School districts do not legally have to collaborate with cities regarding city planning, general plans, and specific plans. But LAUSD includes parts or all of 26 cities. How well is LAUSD facilities collaborating with its cities to plan and site new school facilities?
When I took this job I said I would do two things: collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. We have already allocated $60 million for joint use, and we are working with the city officials: Mayor Villaraigosa, as well as officials from the other 26 cities. I just had a meeting, for example, with the city officials and the mayor in the South Gate area. We are finding ways to work with them to site schools.
The other thing we do is to set up joint use. One city, Maywood, wants to have joint use with a swimming pool. Obviously there are a lot of liabilities with a swimming pool, but to the extent that that could become a neighborhood pool, we are working with them. They have some significant issues during the summer with summer youth programs, and we are working with them on that. We are partnering in a formal way.
You noted earlier rising construction cost, and that this is a serious challenge for both LAUSD and the Community College District. What choices are you being forced to make because of rising costs?
We are living with it right now; we don't have to do anything unnatural right now. But, if these costs continue to go up, we are going to be challenged. We're going to have to find new ways to do it or find competition.
But let's talk about some of the great things that we have been commended for: We have the "We Build" program. That program is helping to create more construction workers and training. We've already had 415 graduates. We have the Small Business Boot Camp, which is training small businesses to handle public sector contracts. So far, 385 businesses have completed that program. And we have awarded $25 million in contracts to those graduates. The other one is the IC internship program, which is providing architect and engineering internships to high schools throughout the district. So far 250 students have applied and we just received a ULI award for planning.
We are trying to help ourselves because we realize that construction costs are going to continue to rise in the foreseeable future. So, in essence, we are trying to help ourselves as well as the community. I credit that again to my great team in facilities.
Many commentators, including this publication, have noted that 70 years ago the county invited the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the LA River from flooding. The Corps responded to this limited mission by paving much of the river to move the water through the canal faster. Now city planners and community leaders are trying unpave the river and to bring it back to life. The LAUSD analogy is that that the task given to your facilities team is to simply build more seats to get kids off the bus. Redefinign what is a shool is, rethinking the shape, purpose, and nature of our schools is not a priority. Is such criticism unfair?
Yes, it's totally unfair. I'm a 21st century guy. One of the first questions I asked my staff was, "How are we building these new schools?", especially in the later phases because I can't account for what already has happened.
One of the things I learned in the ship building business is that we have to build ships that are modular. We can build the hull, but inside of that hull you have to create space wherein you can put the latest and greatest in terms of combat systems. And those combat systems are going to change over time.
So, we are building what we call exoskeleton schools. That means that we put in the walls, electricity, and plumbing, etc., in a way that if, say, 20 years from now we don't even have computers anymore, we will be able to reconfigure some of those new schools to the latest and greatest in technology. Plus, we've won over 60 awards nationwide for our design.
To think that we would follow that old model is ludicrous. Ten, twenty, or thirty years from now, we don't have to reconstruct, rebuild, or do some kind of major overhaul of a school in order to bring it up to the latest standard.
The Gates Foundation has been reluctant to fund LAUSD, and many in public health and the community have faulted the district's large and poorly sited new schools, not the expertise in building them. What are the facilities division's new marching orders?
Small learning communities is the direction that Gates is going. As I just mentioned, 179 small learning communities are coming on line this fall, and you can expect many more. But we are so large. L.A. cannot be compared to anybody else given the size of the schools that we have to build and the size of the populations of the students we have to serve. After 2014, this declining enrollment is going to reverse, and we are liable to see additional increases of student population. We just come under such a different paradigm when it comes to schools. It's just amazing. My team is doing a great job, and we are not buried with our heads in the past; we are looking to the future.