Billions to Spend: Part 1
Waste throws wrench into Los Angeles community colleges' massive project
Poor planning, frivolous spending and shoddy work dog the sprawling system's bond-financed construction program.
Larry Eisenberg, head of the construction program, right, at a meeting. In an April 2009 e-mail, he told his construction chief that quality control was "horrible," adding: "We are opening buildings that do not work at the most fundamental level." (Christina House / For The Times / May 24, 2010)
In 2001, leaders of the Los Angeles Community College District decided to take action. With support from construction companies and labor unions, they persuaded voters to pass a series of bond measures over the next seven years that raised $5.7 billion to rebuild every campus.
Billions to Spend: Complete Coverage
The money would ease classroom crowding. It would make college buildings safer. New technology would enhance learning. And financial oversight would be stringent.
That is what was promised to Los Angeles voters.
The reality? Tens of millions of dollars have gone to waste because of poor planning, frivolous spending and shoddy workmanship, a Times investigation found.
Bond money has paid for valuable improvements: new science buildings, libraries, stadiums and computer centers. But costly blunders by college officials, contractors and the district's elected Board of Trustees have denied the system's 142,000 students the full potential of one of California's largest public works programs.
This picture emerges from scores of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of district financial records, internal e-mails and other documents.
At East Los Angeles College, construction of a grand entry plaza with a clock tower degenerated into a comedy of errors. Heating and cooling units were installed upside down, inspectors found. Concrete steps were uneven. Cracked and wet lumber had to be torn out. A ramp for the disabled was too steep for wheelchairs, and the landmark clock tower listed to one side.
Fixing the problems helped drive construction costs from $28 million to $43 million.
A new health and science center at Valley College was marred by defective plumbing, cracked floors, leaky windows and loosely attached ceiling panels that threatened to crash down in an earthquake.
The district paid a contractor $48 million to build the complex, but had to hire others to correct the problems and finish the project — for an additional $3.5 million.
At least those buildings were finished, eventually. At West Los Angeles College, officials spent $39 million to design and begin construction of four major buildings, only to discover that they didn't have the money to complete them.
Just as crews were starting work last summer, the projects, including a $92-million athletics center, were abandoned.
"This is astounding," said David Beaulieu, president of the District Academic Senate. "How could this have happened?"
At Valley College, workers renovated a theater complex, installing new seats, lighting and sound equipment in time for a 2009 student production of "Alice in Wonderland." But even before the $3.4-million job was done, officials decided to build a new theater complex. The renovated one is slated for demolition.
"I think it's obscene, given what's going on in this economy," said Pete Parkin, former chairman of the theater department. "It's mind-boggling."
At L.A. City College, architects were hired to design a five-story fitness center with a glassed-in dance studio on the top floor. Before construction began, the college president decided to move the fitness center to the other side of campus. There, it would need to be short and wide, not tall and narrow.
The $1.8-million design was suddenly worthless. The district paid architects $1.9 million to draft a new one.