Los Angeles’ Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools isn’t making headlines just because it was built on the site of its namesake’s 1968 assassination. Once this school year starts, it will be the most expensive public school in our nation, costing the Los Angeles Unified school district (and taxpayers) $578 million to build.
The 24-acre K-12 campus will house 4,260 students in seven buildings come September. Its more luxurious features include fine art murals, a marble memorial dedicated to RFK, a public park, a state-of-the-art swimming pool, underground parking and "talking" benches that recall the site's historical significance. The buildings also include restored or recreated sections of the now-infamous 1921 Ambassador Hotel and the Coconut Grove nightclub.
The RFK campus isn’t the first school in Los Angeles to carry a hefty price tag. The $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center opened in 2008, and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School opened in 2009.
The cost of these schools wouldn’t be such an issue if California wasn’t one of the most cash-strapped states in the U.S. The state is set to receive $1.3 billion in aid through the $26 billion bill passed earlier this month by Congress, which intends to stave off teacher layoffs, prevent cuts of Medicaid services to the poor and generally alleviate out-of-control state budget deficits.
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According to California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state has a $6.3 billion projected deficit for 2009–10 and a $14.4 billion gap between projected revenues and spending in 2010–11.
According to the Associated Press, California has laid off nearly 3,000 teachers over the past two years. RFK Community Schools’ district, in particular, also faces a $640 million shortfall, and some of its schools persistently rank among the nation's lowest performing. These facts have led some to question the pricey new construction.
“At a time where schools all across the country, and LA as well, complain that there isn’t enough money for even basics, why is money readily available to build more buildings?” Corinne Gregory, a Washington resident who also speaks on education-related topics, tells MainStreet. “$578 [million] could have financed a lot of basics.”
Others have been slightly more diplomatic in airing their criticism
“I don't just react to a dollar figure without seeing what the details are,” California resident and former school librarian Nancy Schimmel tells MainStreet, adding that building expenses don’t typically come from the same funding as teacher’s salaries. “It's better to spend up front for energy-saving and maintenance features than pay out every year for those costs.”
Los Angeles officials maintain the new schools were planned long before California became one of the hardest hit states. Additionally, the RFK school was funded by $20 billion construction bond approved by the city’s voters.
Of course, the school wasn’t originally planned to cost so much. According to The Week, the district’s $400 million estimate shot up after it had to pay $9 million in legal battles with preservationists who wanted the Ambassador kept intact and Donald Trump, who wanted to build the world's tallest skyscraper on the site. The city eventually paid another $15 million to preserve parts of the site. An additional $33 million was needed to install a methane mitigation system and the school district also hadn’t accounted for a 2006-07spike in raw building materials.
In all fairness, however, California isn’t the only state building mega-schools. New York City is home to a $235 million primary education campus, and Massachusetts’ Newton North High cost $197.5 million. New Jersey also houses two high schools that cost over $100 million to build: the $185 million New Brunswick High School and the $102 million Central High School in Newark.
“Last year only 3.9% of students were able to graduate via the standard exit exam [in Newark],” Derrell Bradford, Executive Director of E3, a non-profit organization devoted to improving urban public education, tells MainStreet. “Parents shouldn't let the bells and whistles of a new building take their eyes off of what really matters: does my child have a great teacher and are they being well educated?”
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