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Wear, Tear Take Toll as Schools Try to Economize

June 29, 1986|JOHN L. MITCHELL | Times Staff Writer

About 40 years ago, Santa Monica school officials decided to floor their classrooms with the same tough linoleum that the Navy used on its World War II battleships. The linoleum was laid to last a long time and it has.

Those same floors are still in place, although they are worn and torn. In one classroom at Santa Monica Alternative School the floors have buckled and cracked because the walls leak whenever it rains.

"These floors would be fine if they were maintained properly," said Fred Wendt, district director of maintenance and operations, who pointed out that it is difficult to maintain them when they are frequently under water.

Pressured to Improve

Wendt used the Alternative School classroom as an example of what happens when a district is forced to defer maintenance to balance its budget.

Like most California school districts, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified has been pressured to improve its level of instruction despite the shortage of funds created by the passage of Proposition 13.

"We have had years of neglect and there is little we can do about it because we do not have the money to make all the repairs we need," Wendt said.

He cited Franklin Elementary School, where classrooms are being painted for the first time in 30 years, and McKinley Elementary, which has not been reroofed since 1933.

The district needs more than $800,000 just to repair all of its roofs, he said. There are school playgrounds that have not been repaved, stairways that are in disrepair and heating and air conditioning systems that do not work.

Santa Monica-Malibu recently submitted a five-year plan to the state Allocation Board outlining more than $3 million worth of needed repairs at its 16 schools.

Under the state's deferred maintenance program, school districts are required to allocate up to 0.5% of their budget to receive matching funds from the board, which paid out $116 million this year.

Wendt estimates that he needs at least $1.5 million on top of his $1.6-million annual budget to operate an effective maintenance program. The district, however, anticipates receiving only about $187,000 from the Allocation Board for the 1986-87 school year.

Estimates have placed the cost of deferred maintenance in California school districts at $1 billion, and at $25 billion in schools across the nation.

Gary Marx, associate director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Assn. of School Administrators, called the problem a national one. "Many of the schools are not allocating sufficient funds to maintenance because they are under pressure to devote more money to curriculum and instruction," he said.

Marx contends that residents must look at their schools as they do roads and bridges--as part of the infrastructure of their communities. "We don't think of public buildings such as schools in that way," he said. "When we spend dollars for education it is not an expense, it is an investment and one that will pay off."

But Onis C. Lentz, director of operations for the Burbank Unified School District and the former chairman of the maintenance and operations committee of the California Assn. of School Business, said that districts have abandoned preventive maintenance, making only repairs that meet the health and safety needs of the children.

"Cutting maintenance has always been an easy way for districts to come up with funds," he said. "Painting, plumbing, roofing and playground blacktop repair are often just put off. As a result, it becomes a cancerous situation as buildings deteriorate. It's like the guy in the commercial who says, 'You can pay me $5 now or $10,000 later.' Most districts wind up paying later."

'Putting Out Fires'

Added Santa Monica-Malibu school board President Dick Williams, "Right now we are just putting out fires. Clearly the top priority is safety." The second priority, he said, is to eliminate damage that can lead to even worse problems. "Then come repairs that relate to instruction and then you get to building maintenance. The problem is you never get that far."

The lack of proper maintenance was highlighted in the 1986 state accreditation report of Santa Monica High School. The March report was prepared by a visiting committee for the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges.

The report said the district should replace or repair damaged classroom furniture. It also described school buildings as being run-down and stated that high school buildings most needing renovation and repair are the history and English buildings and Barnum Hall.

School officials say that one of the problems has been the lack of a specific plan. "Repairs have often been made on the basis of which principal screams the loudest," said Mike McCarty, the director of business services.

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