A student stops by his locker at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, a high school in west central Los Angeles that opened its doors in September 2006. Designed by Johnson Fain as an "urban village" surrounding a central courtyard, the school has 2,500 students, many of whom had previously been bused to schools outside their neighborhoods because of systemwide overcrowding.
Monica Nouwens A student stops by his locker at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, a high school in west central Los Angeles that opened its doors in September 2006. Designed by Johnson Fain as an "urban village" surrounding a central courtyard, the school has 2,500 students, many of whom had previously been bused to schools outside their neighborhoods because of systemwide overcrowding.

Eleven years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—the country's second largest public school system —won a major political coup: $2.4 billion in bond dollars for a school modernization and construction initiative. For the first time in 30 years, the LAUSD would have the funds to build new schools and to ease the overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure that plagued the district. The administration set the bar high: Over a period of 15 years, more than 100 new schools would be erected, while more than 800 existing schools would be updated and expanded.

The Belmont Learning Complex was supposed to usher in this new era. Belmont was meant to be an architectural statement of the future of public education in L.A. Placed on a prominent lot in the heart of downtown, the school would brush shoulders with the LAUSD's own high-rise headquarters on South Beaudry Avenue. The construction site was visible from the famously busy state 110 Freeway, so thousands of commuters could watch daily as the public school began to take shape in the distance.

Then contractors found noxious gases.

In 1999, workers unearthed a toxic brew where the playing fields would go. Construction stopped, and the LAUSD embarked on an expensive series of tests to see if the gases could be contained. And that's when they found the earthquake fault line.

The press and the community went on the attack, calling the LAUSD incompetent and incapable of managing the public's money effectively. With the cost to complete the school rising to a reported $300 million, Belmont was fast becoming the most expensive public school in the United States. Add to that the news that the district couldn't pay its contractors and design firms on time, and the LAUSD was not only gaining a bad reputation in the public's eye, but architects saw it as an inefficient and frustrating client. The country's most ambitious school-building program couldn't have gotten off to a worse start.

Today, Guy Mehula, the chief facilities executive for the district, can see Belmont from his office on the 23rd floor of the LAUSD building. The school, sited differently with a revised design, will finally open its doors later this year and, in an effort to put the past to rest, the district has renamed it Vista Hermosa, or “Beautiful View.” From where Mehula is standing, the view truly is spectacular. The crystalline February day affords a panorama of the Los Angeles basin with the Hollywood Hills rising in the distance. Mehula points to several major school projects already completed or under way, including a new arts-focused high school designed by Viennese firm Coop Himmelb(l)au.

The LAUSD's New Construction and Modernization Program hit the $20.3 billion mark this year, making it the largest public infrastructure project in the United States, surpassing even Boston's Big Dig. Since 2000, 530 acres of land have been acquired throughout Los Angeles and the surrounding counties. Sixtynine new schools have been completed, with 63 more on line, for a total of some 165,000 new student seats. Despite the initial skepticism and ridicule, the LAUSD has racked up an impressive list of AIA design awards; in 2006, the Urban Land Institute honored the district with its annual Award for Excellence.

“That,” Mehula says, looking down at Belmont, “that is all behind us.”

A BUMPY PHASE ONE The district regards its building program as nothing less than an effort to reinvigorate public education in the city and, by extension, the city itself. From the outset, officials recognized the pivotal role that architects would play in realizing this vision. “We didn't want cookie-cutter schools,” Mehula says. “We wanted to do something that fit into each community.” Over the past decade, the LAUSD has hired more than 105 architecture firms, including high-profile and award-winning ones like Morphosis, Perkins+Will, Johnson Fain, and Gensler. It established a Design Advisory Council composed of top-tier architects to support the design process. And it finally figured out how to pay on time.

To appreciate the significance of these steps, especially the last one, it helps to understand the realities of public education in L.A. The LAUSD is second only to New York City in the number of students it serves. The district is spread thin over 700 square miles of sprawl and encompasses a wide range of socioeconomic and racial demographics. It also has 26 different cities under its purview, which means a host of city councils to lobby and mollify.

As in many public school systems in the United States, high teacher turnover and dropout rates beleaguer the LAUSD, which is known for overcrowding and poor facilities. For years, budget constraints prevented construction from keeping pace with population growth, and, as a result, thousands of students must board buses at dawn and ride an hour or more to a school in a distant neighborhood. Once there, they may sit in a temporary trailer because the main school can't accommodate them. In some areas, the district adopted a year-round calendar to alleviate the overflow.

By 1997, with nearly 700,000 students already in the system, officials predicted a shortage of 200,000 classroom seats in the near future. The L.A. school board, advancing the cause in the political arena, pushed to provide a sustainable school in each community, with a seat for every student, and to return to a traditional two-semester school calendar.

One year after that first bond bill passed, the LAUSD promised 78,000 new classroom seats within six years (that was later adjusted to 65,000 seats by 2007, a goal they subsequently met). In order to get matching funds from the state, they had to get designs on the boards immediately. The New School Construction Program began at a breakneck speed, one reason for the problems in phase one.

“They went out, they engaged 70-plus architects, and they had 70 designs without all of the design guidelines in place,” Mehula says today. “To get $700 million in applications before the state as quickly as they did was a phenomenal task, but look at the daily news at the time. LAUSD had published the plan that they would deliver 65,000 seats by 2007 and the nicest quote was: ‘It's probably unrealistic.' Even school district officials were testifying to the school board and saying, ‘It can't be done.' ”

Many of the first-phase architecture firms had never navigated a school through review and regulations in Los Angeles, let alone in the state of California (where the complex design review process takes an average of nine months). Nick Seierup oversees the L.A. office of Perkins+Will, one of the first firms to win a contract for a new high school. Seierup witnessed the challenges faced by younger firms. “The manual from the LAUSD is like War and Peace,” Seierup says. “The [sustainability] codes are like Anna Karenina. And then you have the state regulations on top of that. It really makes it easy to snow under a small firm.”

The district bogged down the process further by simply promoting construction managers to oversee the projects. “In the first phase, they took the construction managers and said, ‘Congratulations! You are in charge of everything!' But working with architects requires a different skill set,” Mehula says.