Sunday, April 25, 2004

LOS ANGELES - The last time anyone undertook a project as massive as the Los Angeles Unified School District’s current construction program, gymnast Mary Lou Retton was America’s sweetheart.

“It’s like when the Olympics came to Los Angeles in 1984,” said Jim McConnell, the district’s chief facilities executive. “You have a tight timeline, you have incredible visibility and if you don’t finish on time, people are going to be unhappy.”

The 10-year, $10 billion project, the biggest school-construction program in the nation, is nothing if not ambitious. The LAUSD plans to build 160 schools between 2002 and 2012, as well as expand and update some of its existing 800 facilities.

And yet when the project is officially completed in eight years, it won’t be enough. That $10 billion will buy 162,000 seats, but projections are that, by 2012, the district will need an additional 33,700 seats, Mr. McConnell said.

Such is the size of the immigration wave into Los Angeles. With the state growing by about 600,000 people per year, virtually all of it from immigration, the school system can’t keep pace with the growth.

In Los Angeles County, arguably no services have been hit harder by the immigration influx than public education and health care. Both systems are facing fiscal crises owing in part to the influx of newcomers they are required to serve without regard to status.

Right now, the growth means that 350,000 of the district’s 750,000 students have 163 school days, instead of the normal 180. About 16,000 students are bused to schools outside their neighborhoods in search of seats.

“If we don’t build now, then 200,000 kids won’t have seats in their neighborhood schools,” Mr. McConnell said.

They may be paddling against the tide, but school officials remain upbeat. Three years ago, LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer brought in a staff of professional civil engineers, some retired military like Mr. McConnell, to oversee the project. The district also managed to persuade taxpayers to pass a handful of bond measures.

Instead of blaming immigration as the cause of the building woes, school officials point out that the district hadn’t built a real school since 1969. They attribute the inaction to the state’s stiff school building codes, as well as the prohibitively high cost of land in Los Angeles.

With property scarce, district planners got creative, buying up odd plots of land and designing schools to fit them. They’re going vertical and underground, taking up half the room of the average 30-acre high school of the 1950s.

In one case, Mr. McConnell said, they were able to build a high school on just 4.7 acres.

The district is also trying to place the schools where the students are. More than 70 percent of the district’s students are Hispanic, and more than 50 percent are identified as speakers of limited English.

“Most of the schools we’re building are in the most densely populated areas, and these days the most crowded areas are Latino neighborhoods,” Mr. McConnell said.

Meanwhile, the prognosis for the health care system is increasingly grim. Since 1999, the county has closed six hospitals and nine public clinics owing to financial constraints, said Carol Gunter, director of the Los Angeles County Medical Services Agency.

She cited several reasons, including recent state laws mandating higher nurse-to-patient ratios and requiring hospitals to upgrade their buildings to meet new seismic standards. On top of that, there’s the problem of providing for the uninsured who turn up at emergency rooms seeking health care.

The uninsured and underinsured, mainly those on Medi-Cal, account for 30 percent of county residents. For those moving through the trauma system, it’s closer to 50 percent. Because federal law requires hospitals to screen and stabilize all patients, “if a patient is uninsured, the hospital eats it,” she said.

Private providers are also feeling the squeeze. The health care giant Tenet announced in January that it would sell its 14 Los Angeles-area hospitals and if it doesn’t find buyers by December, it will “probably close them,” Mrs. Gunter said.

Paying for indigents costs more than $360 million annually, said Tony Bell, chief of staff to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

“There are documented cases of people coming from all over the world for free health care,” Mr. Bell said. “The taxpayers foot the bill, and then they’re losing their own services.”

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