LOS ANGELES – Next month’s opening of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools will be auspicious for a reason other than its both storied and infamous history as the former Ambassador Hotel, where the Democratic presidential contender was assassinated in 1968.
With an eye-popping price tag of $578 million, it will mark the inauguration of the nation’s most expensive public school ever.
The K-12 complex to house 4,200 students has raised eyebrows across the country as the crème de la crème of “Taj Mahal” schools, $100 million-plus campuses boasting both architectural panache and deluxe amenities.
“New buildings are nice, but when they’re run by the same people who’ve given us a 50 percent dropout rate, they’re a big waste of taxpayer money,” said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution who sits on the California Board of Education.
At RFK, the features include fine art murals and a marble memorial depicting the complex’s namesake, a manicured public park, a state-of-the-art swimming pool and preservation of pieces of the original hotel.
The RFK complex follows on the heels of two other Los Angeles Unified School District schools among the nation’s costliest – the $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, which opened in 2008, and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School that debuted in 2009.
The pricey schools have come during a sensitive period for the nation’s second-largest school system: Nearly 3,000 teachers have been laid off over the past two years, the academic year and programs have been slashed. The district also faces a $640 million shortfall and some schools persistently rank among the nation’s lowest performing.
Construction costs at LA Unified are the second-highest in the nation – something the district blames on skyrocketing material and land prices, rigorous seismic codes and unionized labor.
James Sohn, the district’s chief facilities executive, said the megaschools were built when global raw material shortages caused costs to skyrocket to an average of $600 per square foot in 2006 and 2007 – triple the price from 2002. Costs have since eased to $350 per square foot.
Sohn said LA Unified has reached the end of its Taj Mahal building spree. “These are definitely the exceptions,” he said. “We don’t anticipate schools costing hundreds of millions of dollars in the future.”