Report 99123 Summary - December 1999
Los Angeles Unified School District:
Its School Site Selection Process Fails to Provide Information Necessary for Decision Making and to Effectively Engage the Community
RESULTS IN BRIEF
With hundreds of thousands of current students and an expanding enrollment, the Los Angeles Unified School District (district) has recently started selecting sites for 96 new schools. Unfortunately, the process it uses to choose the locations for these schools does not ensure that the district will have the most appropriate and safest sites in the communities the schools will serve. In fact, partly as a result of the district's lack of information about potential school sites, the district has built 11 schools that are on or in close proximity to sites containing hazardous substances. It has also delayed or halted construction on 3 other schools on such sites and has built 2 more on sites known or suspected to have released hazardous materials.
At two key junctures in the district's decision-making process-the point at which district staff selects and the board of education (board) approves one preferred site for detailed study of its feasibility and the point at which the board approves a site for acquisition-the district has not collected and provided to its board sufficient data to render an informed decision. In other words, before it targets a site for feasibility studies, district staff members have not conducted adequate site evaluations that consider criteria recommended by the California Department of Education (CDE), nor have they determined whether a proposed site would violate state law. For example, the district does not investigate the potential presence of toxic substances on the sites or prepare complete estimates of the cost to acquire the property before it recommends one site for feasibility studies. In addition, the district does not provide the board with complete, accurate information before the board approves a site for acquisition. Indeed, two independent investigations and our review of a sample of sites found that in the past, district staff has underreported health and safety hazards and downplayed the results of environmental reports.
Although the district has identified sites for nearly half of the 96 schools it plans to build, it has not sufficiently involved the schools' respective communities in its site selection process, and the district's staff and board have not gathered or evaluated sufficient information to evaluate the prospective sites. Because it encompasses a largely urban area with little undeveloped land, the district faces many challenges when it looks for locations suitable for the construction of new schools that will provide a safe environment for children and district employees. However, the district is not handling these challenges as well as it could.
For example, during its site selection process, the district does not effectively solicit community comments, recommendations, and support. The district has not sufficiently included the public when evaluating alternative sites, which has angered community members and delayed the selection of some sites. Moreover, for nearly half of the 51 school projects identified in the district's 1998 master plan, the district used an expedited site selection process that did not involve the community at all. Therefore, the district has missed opportunities to get valuable site suggestions, obtain information about the neighborhoods surrounding prospective school sites, and deflect community discontent. When it has sought public involvement, the district has limited or delayed this participation, so that the community has had little opportunity to change the course of the project. The district has announced that in the future it will use facilitators trained in community outreach to work with the community when selecting school sites.
Although the district has recently taken steps to avoid acquiring unsafe sites, it is too early to tell whether these changes will ensure that school sites acquired in the future are suitable and safe. Furthermore, we found that the district needs to improve its documentation and the communication among its branches involved in the site selection process to make sure that all steps in the process take place and that the district and its board are accountable to the public for the decisions they make.
To ensure that it evaluates proposed sites thoroughly and recommends the best sites for feasibility studies, the district should do the following:
- Revise its site selection guidelines to include all applicable site selection criteria recommended by the CDE.
- Conduct a limited environmental assessment of all alternative sites to assess the safety of the sites before the district's staff recommends a site for feasibility studies.
- Obtain better cost estimates for all alternative sites by estimating business relocation costs; costs for site preparation, including remediation expenses; and ongoing maintenance costs, including the cost of environmental monitoring systems (if applicable).
- Continue to submit environmental reports to the Department of Toxic Substances Control for review, as it has since January 1999.
- Eliminate the use of the expedited process and always hold a community meeting before selecting a preferred site for feasibility studies.
- Improve the notification process for the initial community meeting by notifying homeowners associations, owners of commercial and rental property, and residents of the study area and by notifying invitees of the meeting at least one week in advance.
- Include community representatives on the site selection team.
- Develop project timelines and a checklist that includes all the steps in the site selection process and use them as tools to better coordinate the process among all the branches involved and ensure that all steps are completed.
The chief operating officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District is in complete agreement with our findings and is fully committed to ensuring the implementation of all our recommendations.