Broke—and Building the Most Expensive School in U.S. History

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What a juicy story!  Free (taxpayer) Money! Highlights:

At $578 million—or about $140,000 per student—the 24-acre Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex in mid-Wilshire [CA] is the most expensive school ever constructed in U.S. history. To put the price in context, this city’s Staples sports and entertainment center cost $375 million. To put it in a more important context, the school district is currently running a $640 million deficit and has had to lay off 3,000 teachers in the last two years. It also has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country and some of the worst test scores.

The K-12 complex is a jarring reminder that money doesn’t guarantee success—though it certainly beautifies failure.

[T]he school boasts an auditorium whose starry ceiling and garish entrance are modeled after the old Cocoanut Grove nightclub…  Talking benches—$54,000—play a three-hour audio of the site’s history.

[Thomas] Rubin, [a consultant for the district’s bond oversight committee, was asked] whether some of the school’s grandiose features … were worth the cost. “Did we have to do that? Hell no. But there’s no accounting for taste,” he responded.

The district’s building spree has sparked outrage from charter schools, not least because they are getting only a tiny piece of the bond pie. California Charter School Association President Jed Wallace says a charter school can be built at a seventh of the cost of the Kennedy complex…. For example, the nonprofit Green Dot built seven charters in the area—to serve about 4,300 mainly low-income students—for less than $85 million in total. These schools also have a collective graduation rate that’s nearly twice as high as that of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which Education Week magazine pegs at 40%.

Mr. Rubin says it’s unfair to compare charters with traditional public schools because charters aren’t saddled with onerous government regulations regarding labor and environmental standards. What he doesn’t say is that charter schools don’t have taxpayers as a backstop. Traditional public schools “have no accountability or restraints,” Mr. Wallace bristles. “They don’t have to make the tough choices when costs run over.”

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