Old School Politics

In Santa Ana, school construction takes a backseat to aggressive campaign fund-raising

Photo by Jessica CalkinsThree years ago, Santa Ana voters passed Measure C, approving $145 million for the construction of new schools to serve the city's swelling student population. So far, they've gotten almost nothing for the money—except construction delays, cost overruns and the architect involved in the greatest school-construction debacle in U.S. history.

The reason: Former Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) officials say school board members John Palacio and Nativo Lopez inserted themselves into the school-construction process to raise cash for their own political campaigns. They say the two wasted more than a year on the selection of architects, many of whom ultimately became big campaign contributors.

"Once [architects] submitted their names as interested in a project, they all received campaign literature," said Gordon Itow, a former SAUSD facilities planner who is now senior director of facilities planning for Anaheim City School District. Itow said many of the firms the board hired made campaign contributions to Lopez and Palacio and, during interviews with staff, would often boast of their political connections to the two board members.

That highly politicized process benefited at least one unlikely player: Irvine-based McLarand/Vasquez, Emsiek and Partners. The firm is the lead architect on LA Unified's $175 million Belmont school project, which, after years of delays, is only half-built and may never be completed.

In March 2000, just before SAUSD hired the company to refurbish Remington Elementary School and Valley High School, McLarand/Vasquez sent $250 to Lopez's November 2000 re-election campaign. Two months ago, the firm contributed $1,000 to Palacio's re-election bid.

"This happened with Vasquez, but also with other firms," Itow said.

Itow said McLarand/Vasquez wasn't even part of the "original shortlist" of candidates for the Remington or Valley projects. "We ranked them and sent forward a recommendation to interview a certain number of firms, but the board wanted to interview more," he said. "Over the course of time, we interviewed about 35 firms. . . . That was an unconventional process that was directed by the board. It was a major recruitment effort."

Investigators from the district attorney's office and SAUSD have concluded Palacio and Lopez did not break the law.

McLarand/Vasquez stands to earn a total of $1,298,759 once the two schools are completed.

"They're extensive modernization projects with added construction," Lopez said. He added that McLarand/Vasquez's involvement with the Belmont project did not concern the school board, which voted unanimously to select one architect. (Palacio did not respond to calls seeking his comment for this story.)

But Bill Sharp, chief facilities officer for SAUSD, said both projects are "on hold" and that he has no idea when they will break ground or how the school district will pay for the construction.

That's partly because the board rushed approvals on 12 separate projects. The resulting planning crush drained the district's coffers. That stalled the Remington and Valley projects.

"Right now, those projects are not on the screen because of budget constraints," Sharp said. "The architectural fees for those projects were paid for with Measure C funds until the projects were put on hold. We're looking for funds to complete the projects, but I don't see anything coming."

Another former SAUSD official, Mike Vail, who now works for Vista School District in San Diego, helped build schools in Santa Ana for 11 years. "During that time, 19 schools were built," he said. "At that time, the board understood their role and had guidelines on how involved they should be. They didn't necessarily get involved in all the details because they didn't have the expertise."

But Vail said all that changed when Palacio got elected to the school board in 1998. "Lopez and Palacio both got involved in architect selection in a way I've never heard of. Traditionally, you have to send out a request for proposals and advertise to get as much competition as possible. The staff forms a committee and scores the proposals, then conducts interviews. After staff rank the responses, the school board would conduct interviews with the most qualified bidders."

Vail quit in April 2000, frustrated with the slow pace of school construction in Santa Ana.

Many architects hired by the board "did not seem experienced in working on state-funded school projects, including Vasquez," Itow said. "They weren't familiar with many of the codes and requirements, funding criteria, and approval processes. So we would have to go through a training program for many of them."

In fact, McLarand/Vasquez's only other school project is the Belmont project, the most expensive and controversial school project in U.S. history. As the Weekly first reported five years ago, McLarand/Vasquez was selected for that job by Wayne Wedin, a former Brea city councilman and LA Unified consultant who was simultaneously doing business with McLarand/Vasquez principal Ernesto Vasquez in Panama.

The Panama deal fell apart because of cost overruns; allegations of corruption plagued the Belmont project for years. Numerous investigations have failed to turn up evidence of any wrongdoing. Last month, however, a majority of LA Unified board members said they wanted to scrap the half-completed Belmont project after the district discovered a small geological fault running directly beneath the school.

 
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