O, M, G -- Price Tag for One New LA K-12 Complex: $578 Mil

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Call it "No Contractor Left Behind."

The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles, apparently opening soon, will serve roughly 4,200 students in grades K-12. Its cost is coming in at $578 million, or almost $140,000 per student ($2.75 million per 20-student classroom).

This is the LA Unified District's most flagrant example of its Taj Mahal obsession, and it is far from the only one. Also, as the Associated Press's Christina Hoag reported early Sunday evening, LA is not the only place where the Taj Mahal complex is in vogue:

The K-12 complex to house 4,200 students has raised eyebrows across the country as the creme de la creme of "Taj Mahal" schools, $100 million-plus campuses boasting both architectural panache and deluxe amenities.

"There's no more of the old, windowless cinderblock schools of the '70s where kids felt, 'Oh, back to jail,'" said Joe Agron, editor-in-chief of American School & University, a school construction journal. "Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning."

Not everyone is similarly enthusiastic.

"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. "Parents aren't fooled."

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 (where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated).

Partly by circumstance and partly by design, the Los Angeles Unified School District has emerged as the mogul of Taj Mahals.

The RFK complex follows on the heels of two other LA 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.

Los Angeles is not alone, however, in building big. Some of the most expensive schools are found in low-performing districts - New York City has a $235 million campus; New Brunswick, N.J., opened a $185 million high school in January.

Memo to Mr. Agron: We'd be more impressed with these ultra-costly "impressive environment(s) for learning" if there was tangible evidence that an impressive amount of learning was actually taking place.

Somehow, it seems that we hear about these price tags in the media only after the schools are almost finished.

It would be interesting to know what the cost of maintaining these Taj Mahals will be. My, uh, educated guess is "really excessive."

Let's make that Ms. Hoag's homework. Unfortunately, these costs will become a permanent burden on already beleaguered taxpayers.

Let's also find out if part of the Taj Mahal motivation around the country is the desire, with the help of apparently limitless tax dollars (readers here know better; school officials apparently don't), to put even more pressure on private schools by making them appear relatively unattractive, even though on balance more real learning takes place inside of them.

Please -- Can we dispense with the claptrap about the "under-resourced" and "starving" public sector once and for all?

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.