The most expensive public high school in the nation's history will open its doors to students next month in Los Angeles, but critics say the $578 million school is already teaching a lesson on wasteful spending.
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The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools will house 4,200 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The complex is built on the site of the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan on June 5, 1968.
The new campus between Wilshire Boulevard and 8th Street in Los Angeles preserve pieces of the historic hotel, but it's the stunning new architecture that's drawing eyes and plenty of wagging fingers.
The soaring, unusually shaped buildings are clad in glass and metal, and the interiors are just as slick. The facility boasts a state-of-the-art swimming pool, fine art murals, an ornate auditorium suitable for hosting the Oscars, and a faculty dining room that the superintendent says is "better than most restaurants."
All those amenities add up to an enormous price tag, which works out to about $250,000 per pupil. That $578 million cost is more expensive than the Bird's Nest stadium built for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, which cost $500 million. It's also significantly more expensive than the $400 million home of the Denver Broncos, Invesco Field at Mile High.
Critics say the school is a luxury that the Los Angeles Unified School District cannot afford. The district has a $640 million budget shortfall, and over the past two years, 3,000 teachers have been laid off. The district has even proposed shortening the school year by six days to save money.
The money troubles come on top of the district's serious academic shortfalls. With a dropout rate upwards of 35 percent, LA Unified is one of the lowest-performing school districts in America.
But Los Angeles school district officials say it's not an "either-or" proposition. The money for school construction comes from voter-approved bonds, an account that is totally separate from what is budgeted for textbooks and teachers.
"The money can only be spent for that building," LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines said. "That's what the voters said."
The new facility is just the latest so-called "Taj Mahal" school in LA. There's also a $377 million Roybal Learning Center, and there's the new $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School.
The superintendent confessed he's embarrassed by the price tag of the project. "Yes," he said, "it bothers me." He insists the project was commissioned by shool officials years ago, in a different economic climate.
"I'm not sure it's my place to cut the ribbon," he said, preferring to leave that task to others.
"Welcome to the Alice in Wonderland world of education politics in Los Angeles," said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution. "Up is down, down is up, and none of these decisions has anything to do with kids."
But Los Angeles is hardly alone in its taste for expensive schools. In New York City, there's a $235 million campus. In Brunswick, N.J., $185 million was spent for a high school, and Newton, Mass., topped that figure with a $197 million for a new high school.
Not everyone thinks that big construction budgets make for better teaching.
"What goes on inside the classroom is a lot more than the four walls that go around the classroom," Austin said. "Whether you have a Taj Mahal or a broom closet, make sure you have a 'kids first' agenda."
Back on Wilshire Boulevard, future generations may appreciate the school now built there in Kennedy's name. But the taxpayers now are finding it tough to justify.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.