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Education Reporter

Ultra-Expensive School Opens in Debt-Ridden L.A.
At $578 million, the recently opened Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex (RFK) in Los Angeles is the most expensive school ever built in U.S. history. By comparison, the city's Staples sports and entertainment center cost $375 million.

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The six small schools set on 24 acres will serve about 3,700 K-12 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District with architectural flourishes and posh amenities, if not academic excellence. "They made it like a museum," said Maria Vilar, mother of a fifth-grader.

Indeed, liberal sentiment for Kennedy and the demands of historical conservationists to preserve or restore certain features of the site where the presidential candidate was assassinated explain why the profligate costs are more in line with constructing a museum than a school. Museum-worthy flourishes include a library that resembles the Ambassador Hotel ballroom where Kennedy made his final speech, and a 580-seat auditorium that boasts a starry ceiling and entrance modeled after the Cocoanut Grove nightclub.

A $4.9 million public inspiration park features $54,000 talking benches that play a three-hour audio of the site's history and a wall of quotes from Ted Kennedy, Maya Angelou and Cesar Chavez. Murals and other art cost $1.3 million. Deluxe amenities include a state-of-the-art swimming pool and two gyms.

The inauguration of the RFK schools comes at a time when the nation's second-largest school district faces a $640 million deficit and laid off nearly 3,000 teachers in the past two years. The RFK complex is only the latest "Taj Mahal" of the Los Angeles Unified School District's 131-school building spree; it follows the opening of two other L.A. schools that are among the nation's costliest. The Edward R. Roybal Learning Center debuted in 2008 at a cost of $377 million; the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High school opened in 2009.

"New buildings are nice, but when they're run by the same people who've given us a 50% dropout rate, they're a big waste of taxpayer money," said Ben Austin, California Board of Education member and executive director of Parent Revolution. "Parents aren't fooled."

It's too early to measure the academic performance of RFK students, but if the Roybal Learning Center project is any indication, parents ought not set their hopes too high. The state-of-the-art Roybal Center now ranks in the bottom third of schools with similar demographics. But, as Allysia Finley of the Wall Street Journal sardonically noted, "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."

L.A. is not unique in building big, extravagant schools, however, and many of them are also in the nation's lowest-performing school districts: New York City has a $235 million campus; New Brunswick, NJ opened a $185 million high school in January. In Newtonville, MA, former Mayor David Cohen decided not to run for reelection after the completion of a $197 million high school angered many voters. Dozens of schools across the nation have exceeded $100 million, in part due to amenities such as atriums, orchestra-pit auditoriums, food courts and cozy bamboo nooks.

The extravagant spending especially infuriates Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association. He said the nonprofit Green Dot built seven charter schools to serve about 4,300 mainly low-income students in the L.A. area for less than $85 million — one-quarter of what most L.A. schools cost and one-seventh of what the RFK complex cost. These charter schools boast a graduation rate twice as high as that of the Los Angeles Unified District. Traditional public schools "have no accountability or restraints," said Wallace. "They don't have to make tough choices when costs run over," because they can always reach deeper into the pockets of taxpayers. (Associated Press, 8-22-10, 9-14-10; Wall Street Journal, 9-4-10)

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