From Allysia Finley:
At $578 million—or about $140,000 per student—the 24-acre Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex in mid-Wilshire 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 isn’t merely an overwrought paean to the nation’s most celebrated liberal political family. It’s a jarring reminder that money doesn’t guarantee success—though it certainly beautifies failure.
Set to open Sept. 13, the school boasts an auditorium whose starry ceiling and garish entrance are modeled after the old Cocoanut Grove nightclub and a library whose round, vaulted ceilings and cavernous center resemble the ballroom where Kennedy made his last speech. It also includes the original Cocoanut Grove canopy around which the rest of the school was built. “It wasn’t cheap, but it was saved,” says Thomas Rubin, a consultant for the district’s bond oversight committee, which oversees the $20 billion of bonds that taxpayers approved for school construction in recent years.
I asked Mr. Rubin whether some of the school’s grandiose features—like florid murals of Robert F. Kennedy—were worth the cost. “Did we have to do that? Hell no. But there’s no accounting for taste,” he responded.
Talking benches—$54,000—play a three-hour audio of the site’s history. Murals and other public art cost $1.3 million. A minipark facing a bustling Wilshire Boulevard? $4.9 million.
The Kennedy complex is Exhibit A in the district’s profligate 131-school building binge. Exhibit B is the district’s Visual and Performing Arts High School, which was originally budgeted at $70 million but was later upgraded into a sci-fi architectural masterpiece that cost $232 million.
Even more striking is Exhibit C, the Edward Roybal Learning Center in the Westlake area, which was budgeted at $110 million until costs skyrocketed midway through construction when contractors discovered underground methane gas and a fault line. Eventual cost: $377 million.