On June 5, 1935, thousands of Beverly Hills residents trekked through the rain to the City’s only polling place at Beverly Vista school. The “heavy” showing, as the Beverly Hills Citizen would describe, cast ballots decisively severing ties with the Los Angeles City High School District of Los Angeles County, an antecedent to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Like a classic film noir, the vote was the culmination of a fight over space, oil, and control. “City Loses High School in Beverly,” the front page of the Los Angeles Times declared the next day, recording the overwhelming margin of victory, “1,865 ayes and 322 noes.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2020, when a dispute between Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) and LAUSD is dredging up that history once more.
According to court filings, even after the vote to secede from the district, BHUSD never actually obtained the title to all of the high school property. LAUSD, the nation’s second largest school district, is claiming rights to a significant portion of Beverly Hills’ only high school, including the historic campus buildings, lawn, and the Swim Gym featured in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“If it really is L.A. Unified’s property, then they owe us the money for everything that got built,” BHUSD attorney Terry Tao told the Courier. He says he will recommend to the school board in December to file an “unjust enrichment” suit against LAUSD. If approved by the School Board, the suit will likely be filed early next year, seeking some $750 million for those improvements.
The legal fight is a surprising twist in a long-running conflict between BHUSD and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) over the construction of the Purple Line extension. That extension is slated to tunnel beneath Beverly Hills High School. Metro asserted an eminent domain claim in May 2019 over part of the school’s campus for the construction of the subway.
When a government entity asserts eminent domain over a property, it must pay the owner “just compensation” for the land and any damage to its value. In its eminent domain filing, Metro identified the Los Angeles Unified School District as a “Possible Fee Owner,” which means that LAUSD could potentially stand to receive a portion of the compensation.
In response to the eminent domain case, BHUSD requested that LAUSD relinquish its claims to the disputed parcel and any compensation from Metro’s seizure. LAUSD did no such thing. In fact, LAUSD doubled down, claiming an interest in the property.
BHUSD then filed a quiet title action against LAUSD in June.
“In the beginning, we just did not believe that this could possibly be L.A. Unified’s position,” Tao said. “We did not expect this kind of behavior.”
In a press release issued on Nov. 13, BHUSD stated, “LAUSD’s intent to take over BHHS shocks the conscience and seeks to disable BHUSD’s only high school.”
In a statement to the Courier, LAUSD shows no sign of backing down.
“Beverly Hills Unified School District’s attempts to portray Los Angeles Unified as a villain are disingenuous and false. In fact, title documents show that Los Angeles Unified owns a portion of the Beverly Hills High School property.”
“It’s pretty funny, if you’re on the sidelines, but it’s actually kind of sad,” said Tao.
“If you think about it, it’s really all about money. It’s like ‘Chinatown,’ you could do a black and white movie about this.”