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Oversight panel calls for return of school construction leader

October 1, 2009 | 11:05 am

The panel that oversees school construction in Los Angeles is poised to pass a resolution asking for the return of the official who heads the nation’s largest school building effort and for a reversal of decisions that apparently led to his departure.

The Bond Oversight Committee reached its decision by consensus at a Wednesday special session and will formally vote on the resolution at its regular October meeting, said chair David Crippens.

The hastily called special meeting was in response to the weekend resignation of Guy Mehula, chief facilities executive of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Mehula has managed the $20-billion construction and modernization program that is paid for by local and state voter-approved bonds.

The construction program was set up to be independent of the school system bureaucracy, both to professionalize its operation and to insulate its work from both internal and external political pressure. Mehula and members of the appointed oversight committee were concerned that this independence has been threatened by recent decisions by L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.

These decisions include a consolidation of legal services and communications under more direct district control. Cortines also had resisted paying higher wages to senior managers in a time of economic crisis; Mehula and his supporters believed the higher salaries, which are funded by bond dollars, are needed to attract the most qualified professionals.

“We want Guy back and to reverse the decisions that have been made,” Crippens said in an interview. “We have major challenges ahead. There has to be confidence in the program. We want this program to have continuity, not ups and down. This is not anti the superintendent; this is pro the program.”

Cortines, who answered questions from committee members on Wednesday, pledged that the program would continue to be as independent as necessary. In a later interview he added that he knew it was vital to insulate the construction effort from political interference. He said he worked consistently to do just that. And he said he believed that he and Mehula had been working amicably to resolve disagreements.

Cortines added that he, too, wanted Mehula to remain, but had concluded that Mehula wanted to take advantage of a district-wide early-retirement incentive that was offered as part of a package of budget-cutting strategies.

Oversight committee member Connie Rice strongly contested that interpretation, attributing Mehula’s departure solely to concerns about the program’s future.

Mehula has declined comment.

-- Howard Blume

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