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Los Angeles Unified's Giant Construction Project Loses Leader

Los Angeles Unified has been in the midst of the largest school building project in the country, managing a $20 billion construction program that has, to date, built 80 new schools in the sprawling metropolis.

Last week, the man who many credit with keeping the mammoth effort running cost-effectively and on-time, abruptly resigned. The departure of Guy Mehula, who before joining LAUSD oversaw major construction projects for the U.S. Navy, has caused some folks in Los Angeles, including those responsible for making sure that voter-approved bond money is spent responsibly, to predict that the district's massive public works project will fall apart.

That's because Ramon C. Cortines, the superintendent of LAUSD, apparently decided to take the quasi-independent construction division, and bring it back under the direct authority of his office and the school board.

In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Constance L. Rice, a high profile civil rights lawyer who sits on the city's School Construction Bond Oversight Committee, warned that Cortines' move threatens the entire school construction effort. She points to the district's disastrous handling of the Belmont Learning Complex, a high school campus that the district spent $160 million to build, on top of an oil field, only to have California environmental regulators declare it unsafe for children. In the wake of the Belmont debacle, then-superintendent Roy Romer hired Mehula and made the facilities division an independent entity.

Rice argues that there's no good reason for educators to oversee construction projects and uses pretty harsh words to make her case.

"It is time to consider creating an independent construction authority for building schools. Doctors don't build hospitals, and lawyers don't build courthouses. Why should educators who can barely manage the mission of education build schools?"

What do you think? Do most school districts have the capacity to manage massive construction projects effectively, efficiently, and free of typical district politics?

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