Learning Swerve

In 1993, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced plans to build a new high school on a hillside just north of downtown. Five years later, the project, which became known as the Belmont Learning Complex, is only half-complete. Already more expensive than the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Belmont's price tag has swelled over the years to about $200 million, making it the most expensive high school in California's history.What's worse is the site is also contaminated with toxic waste. As early as 1994, an LA Unified staff memo shows the school district was aware that the environmental-impact report on the site contained a series of flaws and omissions. However, officials-including then-LA Unified Superintendent Sid Thompson and Dominic Shambra, the since-retired director of the office of planning and development-failed to act on that memo. Now, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control has told LA Unified to clean up the Belmont site, a process that, because construction has already begun, is estimated to cost $10 million.At least part of the blame for the expensive cleanup at Belmont falls squarely on the shoulders of Shambra, whose duties included recommending sites for future schools. Another player's role-one with strong ties to Orange County-is only now coming to light. In 1993, a then-California Department of Education (CDE) official named Betty Hanson approved the purchase of the toxic property, according to a recent state report by Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Glendale).Hanson, now vice president of the San Juan Capistrano-based consulting firm California Financial Associates, was hired by Shambra as a consultant to LA Unified in September 1994-less than a year after she approved the school district's plan to put a high school on the contaminated Belmont property. Wildman's report claims that in her role as a CDE official, Hanson had signed off on no less than nine properties "that were later found to be contaminated with harmful toxins."Hanson failed to respond to an interview request for this story, but Shambra, who agreed to talk, vigorously defended her role in granting approval not only to the Belmont purchase but also to other sites that were found to be toxic. "She was responsible," Shambra said, "but the guidelines were much different. [Wildman says] she didn't follow the rules, but the rules weren't in place at that time." But a CDE form in use as early as 1989 (four years before Hanson approved the Belmont purchase) shows that "toxics in the soil" was one of several environmental hazards that Hanson was required to consider. Moreover, in April 1997, Hanson testified in an unrelated lawsuit that the criteria she used to grant approval to Belmont and other school sites included "the environmental hazard, so to speak, having to do with what is underground, as well as in the air and the surrounding area."Dwayne Brooks, Hanson's former boss at CDE, described Hanson as an "excellent" consultant. "I have nothing but positive things to say about Betty, her integrity, her skills as a consultant, and her interest in doing what's best for kids," Brooks said. "She was a high-quality worker." Complicating the picture of an honest, hard-working school consultant, however, is a February 1994 fax sent from Hanson to Shambra's office that was first exposed in Wildman's December report on "public-private partnerships." In the fax, Hanson scribbled: "[Please] have Mr. Shambra check this out for political correctness since he's such an xpert [sic]. Tanks [sic]." This message is followed by a document titled "Activities to be rendered by Betty Hanson, Ed.D., California Financial Services"; it details the "proposed language" for Hanson's upcoming, $125-per-hour consulting contract with LA Unified. What's odd is the date stamped on the fax and its cover sheet by the machine that sent it. That stamp reads February 1994, suggesting that Hanson was working for California Financial Services several months before she formally resigned her position with CDE in September 1994.In a section titled "Hanson's conflict of interest," Wildman's report noted that "Betty Hanson may have been simultaneously working for both the private consulting firm and the California Department of Education," an allegation that, if true, is an apparent violation of state conflict of interest law. Wildman has forwarded his report to both Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti and California Attorney General Bill Lockyer for possible criminal prosecution. Brooks said he could only speculate why Hanson would have sent Shambra a fax indicating she already worked for California Financial Services at a time when she was still employed by the CDE. "Our field consultants are often out in the field," said Brooks. "When you're away from your office, you sometimes need to use someone else's phone or fax machine."Shambra offered a different explanation. He said he had discussed the matter with Hanson and had determined that the fax machine's date stamp was inaccurate-first, Shambra said, by a margin of two years, then by one. "Betty didn't start working [at LA Unified] until 1995, so she couldn't have sent that fax before then," Shambra claimed. "She was already with California Financial Services since September 1994. In February 1994, when they claim she sent the memo, she was still with CDE. In August or September, she went to work for California Financial Services. The following February is when she sent the fax. . . . So that wasn't at all when she was with the CDE."Shambra-who began dating Hanson in March 1997, several months after his wife passed away-claims the allegations against Hanson are part of a political effort to discredit him and other LA Unified officials involved in the Belmont Learning Complex project. "It's an absolute witch-hunt," he said. "They've done everything they can to show the project was wrong and couldn't [do so], so now they've started in on the individuals."In previous interviews, Shambra has also vociferously defended another consultant he hired who became embroiled in a separate scandal involving the Belmont project, former Brea City Councilman Wayne Wedin. It was Wedin's job to evaluate and select the team that would build the Belmont Learning Complex ("Shadow of Suspicion," Dec. 18). Wedin ultimately received more than $1 million in consulting fees from LA Unified over several years. Outraged school officials became distrustful of his work following a number of revelations-including the fact that Wedin was engaged in a simultaneous business deal in the Republic of Panama with a member of the development team he had hired for Belmont. A school board majority voted to yank his $125-per-hour contract in December 1997. Shambra announced his retirement from LA Unified the following month.


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