Broke—and Building the Most Expensive School in U.S. History
Benches that talk, a Cocoanut Grove auditorium, and a marble slab engraved with quotes from Ted Kennedy.
At $578 million—or about $140,000 per student—the 24-acre Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex in mid-Wilshire is the most expensive school ever constructed in U.S. history. To put the price in context, this city's Staples sports and entertainment center cost $375 million. To put it in a more important context, the school district is currently running a $640 million deficit and has had to lay off 3,000 teachers in the last two years. It also has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country and some of the worst test scores.
The K-12 complex isn't merely an overwrought paean to the nation's most celebrated liberal political family. It's a jarring reminder that money doesn't guarantee success—though it certainly beautifies failure.
The cluster of schools is situated on the premises of the old Ambassador Hotel where the New York senator and presidential candidate was shot in 1968. The school district insists that it chose the site not merely for sentimental reasons, but because it was the only space available in the area and the property was dirt cheap.
That was the only cheap thing about the project. In order to build on the site, the school district had to resolve protracted legal battles with Donald Trump—who wanted to build the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi there—and with historical conservationists who demanded that certain features be restored or recreated.
Set to open Sept. 13, the school boasts an auditorium whose starry ceiling and garish entrance are modeled after the old Cocoanut Grove nightclub and a library whose round, vaulted ceilings and cavernous center resemble the ballroom where Kennedy made his last speech. It also includes the original Cocoanut Grove canopy around which the rest of the school was built. "It wasn't cheap, but it was saved," says Thomas Rubin, a consultant for the district's bond oversight committee, which oversees the $20 billion of bonds that taxpayers approved for school construction in recent years.
I asked Mr. Rubin whether some of the school's grandiose features—like florid murals of Robert F. Kennedy—were worth the cost. "Did we have to do that? Hell no. But there's no accounting for taste," he responded.
Talking benches—$54,000—play a three-hour audio of the site's history. Murals and other public art cost $1.3 million. A minipark facing a bustling Wilshire Boulevard? $4.9 million.
The Kennedy complex is Exhibit A in the district's profligate 131-school building binge. Exhibit B is the district's Visual and Performing Arts High School, which was originally budgeted at $70 million but was later upgraded into a sci-fi architectural masterpiece that cost $232 million.
Even more striking is Exhibit C, the Edward Roybal Learning Center in the Westlake area, which was budgeted at $110 million until costs skyrocketed midway through construction when contractors discovered underground methane gas and a fault line. Eventual cost: $377 million.
Mr. Rubin admits that the Roybal Center project was "a tremendous screw-up" that "should have been studied closer beforehand." The project was abandoned for several years, only to be recommenced when community activists demanded that the school be built at whatever cost necessary in order to show respect for the neighborhood's Latino children, many of whom were attending an overcrowded Belmont High School.
The Roybal center now ranks in the bottom third of schools with similar demographics on state tests, while Belmont High ranks in the top third. But even though many Roybal kids can't read or do math, at least they have a dance studio with cushioned maple floors and a kitchen with a restaurant-quality pizza oven.
Expect more such over-the-top and inefficient building projects in the future. Los Angeles voters have approved over $20 billion of bonds since 1997 and state voters have chipped in another $4.4 billion of matching funds. Roughly a third of the cost of the Kennedy complex will be shouldered by state taxpayers.
The district's building spree has sparked outrage from charter schools, not least because they are getting only a tiny piece of the bond pie. California Charter School Association President Jed Wallace says a charter school can be built at a seventh of the cost of the Kennedy complex and a quarter of most L.A. schools. For example, the nonprofit Green Dot built seven charters in the area—to serve about 4,300 mainly low-income students—for less than $85 million in total. These schools also have a collective graduation rate that's nearly twice as high as that of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which Education Week magazine pegs at 40%.
Mr. Rubin says it's unfair to compare charters with traditional public schools because charters aren't saddled with onerous government regulations regarding labor and environmental standards. What he doesn't say is that charter schools don't have taxpayers as a backstop. Traditional public schools "have no accountability or restraints," Mr. Wallace bristles. "They don't have to make the tough choices when costs run over."
That's fairly evident as I glimpse a billboard-sized marble slab engraved with quotes by Cesar Chavez, Maya Angelou and Ted Kennedy. But hey, you can't put a price on taste.
Ms. Finley is an assistant editor of OpinionJournal.com.