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When Jim McConnell retired as commanding officer of the Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps base in Port Hueneme, California, he was required to turn in his combat gear. The young ensign taking charge of each item hesitated, though, when it came to McConnell’s flak jacket. “You’re going to need this,” he said, handing it back.
His joke was aimed at McConnell’s next posting: chief facilities executive for the Los Angeles Unified School District. McConnell laughed, although he didn’t take the jacket. “But,” he says now, “I should have.”
At the age of 51, McConnell finds himself running the largest school construction program in the country’s history — a $15 billion effort to build new schools and modernize old ones. In the first five years of the program, which began in 2001, the district aims to open 65 new schools — that’s 55,000 seats for schoolchildren — then do the same thing again and again and again. By the time the work is done, officials hope to have created new space for 200,000 students.
To get an idea of what McConnell has accomplished in the three-and-a-half years since he took his current position, it helps to know what he walked into. When McConnell left the Navy, the LAUSD was nationally known for its disastrous attempt to build the “Belmont Learning Center,” a high school begun in 1997 that still isn’t finished. A county district attorney’s investigation into corruption on the project in 2000 called it “a public works disaster of biblical proportions.”
But the district’s dysfunction went well beyond the one school. It was renowned within California school-building circles for its glacial construction pace — at best, 1,000 seats a year. Carl Cade, of the California Charter Schools Association, used to work for the L.A. Unified school board, traveling to Sacramento to press for state construction dollars. “It was like I had a ’Kick Me’ sign on my back,” he says. “These were nice, well-meaning people, and they were like, ’You’re never going to build a school.’ ” The result wasn’t just that kids were attending substandard schools; overcrowding also forced the district to cut back on instructional days and to bus children up to four hours a day to faraway neighborhoods.
At the time McConnell was hired by school superintendent Roy Romer, things already had begun to change, with a reform-minded school board replacing the former teachers who’d been running school construction and pushing hard to assemble land for new schools. McConnell quickly brought in his own team — including former Navy engineers — and set out to get schools built as swiftly as possible.
It has not been easy. Securing sites for schools has had its challenges, although McConnell wisely brought in a special assistant familiar with Los Angeles’ political geography, and was careful to gather community input in each case. “We probably held half a dozen meetings in every community,” he says, “but at the end of the day, we have to plant our flag and say, ’This is where the school is needed.’ ” It helps, says Caprice Young, who chaired the school board when McConnell was hired, that McConnell is “a nice combination of dictator and collaborator.”
Just as challenging has been juggling an effort that, as Cade puts it, “requires Jim to lead a bunch of different professions with very different styles, from the community-outreach people who really go out there and work to build consensus; to the engineers, who are focused on the ’timeline critical path’; to the land brokers, who are intent on making the deal to get the land; and then listening to people to understand where the political land mines are.”
Perhaps McConnell’s biggest achievement, though, has simply been to change the community’s expectations by getting schools built — 27 of them by the end of this year. Despite the occasional pothole, the effort enjoys enormous public support simply because it has begun showing results. “We have the right cause here,” he says. “I think L.A. is faced with a social imperative, and we need to deal with it now. If we don’t, it won’t be in our lifetime, and that’s going to be a tragedy for Los Angeles.” That’s about as windy as McConnell gets on the subject.
”Jim’s not going to stand up and give this big ’I Have A Dream’ speech,” says Cade. “What he did is, he built it. He’s building the schools as we speak.”
— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov