Los Angeles transit agency, SEED Foundation to build charter school

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The Los Angeles area's transportation agency is preparing for the coming wave of baby boomer retirements by partnering to create a charter school to train some of their replacements.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's chief executive officer, Phillip Washington, describes the effort as building a “farm team.”

Facing a future worker shortage, Washington reached into his past to develop an idea that would lead L.A. Metro and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to partnering with the SEED Foundation to build a charter boarding school to prepare 9th through 12th graders to work in the transportation industry.

The percentage of L.A. Metro's 11,000 workers eligible for retirement will swell from the current level of 27% to 47% within the next four to five years, said Joanne Peterson, Metro’s chief capital and human development officer.

That loss of human capital will strike just as the transportation authority hits the midway point on its accelerated plans to complete 28 key mass transit projects before the 2028 Olympics are held in the city.

Washington wrote of his experiences that formed the idea for the school in Metro's “Operation Farm Team” entry to the Pioneer Institute’s Better Government Competition, which won the $10,000 first place award in a competition that received 140 entries from transportation agencies, tech entrepreneurs, universities and nonprofits across the country. The award ceremony was held Monday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Boston.

The spark for Washington’s “farm team” idea came as he recalled watching a public housing complex rise in his South Side Chicago neighborhood during his teenage years. The CEO, who is African-American, wrote that he watched as people who did not look like him built transportation projects, utilities, streets and sidewalks in his community.

When he tried to get work on the project, he was either told he was too late, or that he was not trained to work on the projects. He thought it was a “tragedy, that as a resident of the oldest public housing complex in the U.S., he could not get a job or even training to help build his own community.”

The SEED School of Los Angeles hasn’t even broken ground yet, Washington said, but its innovative model has already won a prestigious award.

“I am honored and humbled to accept this award,” Washington said. “It represents the value of Metro’s Career Pathways Program.”

The boarding school is just part of Metro’s recruitment efforts, Peterson said, which include high school and college internships and recruiting military veterans.

“We are looking at ways of bringing people in early, because when people think of our industry, they think of bus and train operators and don’t realize the rich career opportunities that are available,” Peterson said. “We wanted to start early in the high school years.”

Metro sees the boarding school as a way to positively impact communities that are often torn up to build new lines, Peterson said.

The transportation agency has a war chest, partly funded by Measure M, a sales tax approved by 72% of voters in November 2016, expected to generate $120 billion over 40 years to expand rail, rapid bus and bike networks.

That money would fund not only what Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti calls his 28 projects by 28 effort ahead of the Olympics, but another 12 projects for a total of 40 projects proposed over the next 40 years. Everything included in Metro’s long-range plans will create 778,000 jobs over the next four decades, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Washington’s plan aims to answer the question of “who will fill those jobs?”

“Our investment in education will help develop the future workforce needed to transform transportation infrastructure in Los Angeles County,” Washington said.

Three years ago, Washington began working with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to research his idea of creating a transportation school that could train and educate disadvantaged youth, according to LA Metro spokesman Jose Ubaldo.

While researching the idea, he visited the Transit Tech High School in New York City, designed to prepare students to work for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Students there study English, math and other standard classes, but also learn about computer circuitry, hydraulics and electronic troubleshooting. The program is a public school, not a charter, and students go home at night.

Washington’s idea, according to his entry, was to take a page out of baseball’s long-time tradition of partnering with specific minor league teams, so-called farm teams, to maintain a pool of talent to call up to the major league when needed.

But he would do that by tapping homeless youth and foster children in the largely Latino and African-American neighborhoods in South Los Angeles.

Washington worked on the plan for the school with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Last summer, the county announced it was seizing a four-acre blighted vacant lot in Ridley-Thomas’ South Los Angeles second district to develop a mixed-use development with retail shops, housing and to provide a one-acre site for Metro’s and the county’s school proposal.

"Our vision is to put a one-of-a-kind asset here on the corner of Vermont and Manchester that will fundamentally alter the ecosystem of this community — and do so in a culturally sensitive and context-specific manner," Ridley-Thomas said in a statement. "There will be housing, retail, and a workforce training center, but the real engine of long-term economic opportunity will be a state-of-the-art boarding academy that will prepare young people for transportation-related jobs.‎"

It also announced that the SEED Foundation, a 22-year-old nonprofit that has created successful urban, college-preparatory public boarding schools targeting disadvantaged youth in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Miami, had been selected through a request-for-proposal to operate the school.

The SEED Foundation has demonstrated success at its three established campuses "in creating positive educational and personal experiences for young people with multiple poverty indicators," Ubaldo said.

The foundation’s college enrollment rate at its existing campuses is 94% and SEED graduates are 3.5 times more likely to complete college than other low-income, first generation students, Ubaldo said. Though it will be open to all youth in Los Angeles County, SEED LA will focus on recruiting teenagers who have, or are at risk, of contact with Los Angeles County’s public safety, child protection and welfare departments, or youth who have historically been underserved educationally, he said.

A transportation infrastructure curriculum developed by SEED in collaboration with Metro will be embedded in both the traditional academic setting and as part of after-school programming. Focus areas will include engineering, information technology, public administration and policy, operations, urban and regional planning, and logistics and supply chain management.

SEED will have a 65-year ground lease on the property at a rate of $1 a month, said Anita Landecker, chief executive and founder of ExEd, a Los Angeles charter school finance company.

The five-day a week boarding school will have 156 dorm rooms, 20 apartments for residential aides and staff, 22 classrooms, laboratories, a full gym, a full dining hall and an 80-car parking garage on what Landecker described as a “pretty, small footprint” at an acre and a third of the 4.3-acre property.

All-in construction for the boarding school from engineering through construction will cost $80 million, Landecker said. Of that total, $50 million will be financed through a loan based off of New Market Tax Credits the project was awarded; and $30 million will be raised through philanthropy, Landecker said.

At this point, no bond financing is being used, but often Landecker has said bonds have been used to refinance projects with the tax credits after they reached their seven-year expiration date.

Even with the bond market's current low interest rates, and the county’s and LA Metro’s high bond ratings, it is cheaper to use New Market Tax Credits, Landecker said.

The county selected ExEd to develop the financing plan and Abode Communities as the developer-designer. BRIDGE Housing and Primestor Development Inc. are developing the rest of the mixed-use project.

The county and LA Metro will each contribute half of the funding needed to operate the boarding part of the school. Funding for the student’s education would come from per-pupil state funding received by charter schools.

SEED is applying for a charter with the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

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Transportation industry Workforce management Infrastructure Charter schools L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority County of Los Angeles, CA California