AVALON — Ten-year-old Mindy Griffin started school Tuesday in a bridal dressing room above what is generally considered the swankiest restaurant in town. About 60 feet away was the door to a weekend sports bar.
"It's an experience," said the fifth-grader of her new classroom. "We're up here all alone."
Added her friend, Amy Upton, also 10: "I'd rather be here than in a regular classroom. In those rooms you can hear the people next door, and the third-graders have this dumb music. It's totally boring."
The two are among 181 elementary school students in this Catalina Island resort town who are being displaced for at least four weeks by a situation that has raised the ire of some parents.
While workers complete major structural repairs on the building the children normally occupy at Avalon School, which is part of the Long Beach Unified School District, the pupils are being instructed in temporary classroom facilities on the school grounds and around town.
Among the facilities are two portable bungalows, a Catholic church and The Palms restaurant and conference center--a posh former country club recently resurrected as an expensive eating and meeting place.
"The kids are moving uptown," said Jay Feinberg, president of Island Resorts Inc., which owns The Palms.
Although the children seem to be taking the situation in stride, some of their parents are displaying a lot less flexibility.
"I'm very upset. It's not a good atmosphere; they aren't with the other children," said Diana Cromshaw, whose daughter, along with the rest of her fifth-grade class, must catch a bus every morning in front of the school for the five-minute ride to The Palms.
Added Wendy Offield, mother of a 5-year-old whose kindergarten class is meeting at nearby St. Catherine's Church: "If it were anywhere but Avalon, this wouldn't have happened. If we were in Belmont Heights, we would have the problem solved."
The "problem," as she called it, is at least partially the outcome of a disagreement between the Long Beach Unified School District and a mainland contractor. As a result, a group of angry parents have discussed retaliatory tactics against the district ranging from legal action to an all-out school boycott.
Last spring it became evident that the lavatory floors of the elementary school building--built in 1930--had badly deteriorated. New floors had to be put in. To avoid interference with school activities, said Principal Suzanne Fellenzer, the work was delayed until late June.
Almost immediately, however, the work hit a snag. Jim Henry, owner of Jim Henry Construction Co. of Long Beach, described it as an "unresolvable dispute" between his company and the school district over "the interpretation of contract documents." Richard Van der Laan, spokesman for the district, said it involved a misunderstanding over who was responsible for certain tasks.
Marty Sampson, an Avalon contractor who acted as Henry's superintendent on the school job, said the dispute stemmed from the discovery of serious deterioration of a lavatory wall. To safely perform the work on the floors, Sampson said, the wall would have to be shored up with a steel beam. The contractor, said Sampson, believed this to be the school district's responsibility. The district believed it to be the contractor's. The upshot was a monthlong delay that made it impossible to complete the project on time.
Although the original contract called for completion by Sept. 30, Sampson said he believed the project could have been completed by the time school started Sept. 9 had it not been for the delay. Eventually, he said, the district paid the company about $21,000 for work already performed and hired a new contractor, B & H Construction of Irvine.
Sampson, who owns a company called M. Sampson Construction, placed an ad in a local weekly newspaper disassociating himself from the matter.
"This is a small town," he said. "I just wanted to release myself from all responsibility on that job because I didn't have anything to do with (the delay). It could have hurt my business."
Meanwhile, the remainder of the work--expected to be completed between Oct. 15 and 31 at a cost of about $141,000--continues under the new contractor. "I guarantee that the whole building will be sound as a dollar when we put kids back into it," said Donald Ashley, assistant superintendent for the district's elementary division.
And the children, restless after the long summer, are settling into their temporary quarters around town. Two classes--a kindergarten class and a mixed group of kindergartners and first-graders--are meeting at the church, while one fifth-grade class is gathering at The Palms.
The two bungalows, each with two classes, are on the school grounds on the outskirts of the Avalon. At work inside are third-, fourth- and sixth-grade classes in separate rooms, and a combined first- and second-grade class.