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Reading, Writing, Ruin : Ravaged by time, vandals and a lack of money, public schools are starting to look like war zones. With little or no budget for repairs, the children are suffering the consequences.

November 09, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a recent fall day, many of the 3,200 students at Benjamin Franklin High School in Highland Park walked to class, as they have for more than a year, past glass- block windows shattered by bullets, pellets and rocks. Across the way, they passed two empty classrooms charred a year ago by arsonists. They milled around lockers, more than 100 of which were bashed, broken or burned--and unrepaired since 1978.

A boys' bathroom reeked, its stench sometimes reaching the attendance office, students said.

The day was warm and cloudless, but one student described the campus as "gray and gloomy." The Los Angeles Unified School District hasn't once repainted the school since it was rebuilt in the 1960s. The older gym, heated with radiators from the 1930s, has no air conditioning. Three on-site custodians have been lost to cutbacks and until last week, no full-time gardener had tended the 19-acre, multitrack, year-round campus. The principal waits weeks for maintenance help after reporting needed repairs and watches his fix-it list grow longer every year.

Neighbors in an affluent pocket look down, both literally and figuratively, on what ideally would be considered an oasis of hope. One mother said, "Most of the people in Mt. Washington don't want their kids to matriculate at Franklin. They will sell their homes and move rather than go to this school."

But rather than the exception, Franklin, through no fault of its own, is becoming typical of hundreds of regional public schools ravaged by time, vandals, lack of money and a generation of trade-offs.

"Many of the schools built in the '50s and '60s were built to last 30 years," said Larry Picus, associate education professor at the University of Southern California and a school financing specialist. "Thirty years is up."

Even for those unaffected by earthquake damage, the deterioration is accelerating due to increased use and shrinking budgets.

The roof at Utah Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights has been leaking for years. "They do come out and repair it and then after a while, it happens again," said Principal Dee Dee Mynatt.

Already this year, fifth-grade teacher Paul Delaney has had to place protective plastic over eight computers he purchased himself to protect them from the rain. But this was nothing new. Last season, he said, "at one point every night I had to push every table with a computer on it to what I hoped was a safer part of the room."

The teacher does not blame his administrators. "This is a fact of life in this district."

The sprawling LAUSD has accumulated $600 million worth of deferred maintenance projects. "We're only funded at one-third of what the needs are," said Margaret Scholl, director of maintenance and operations for the district. "We spend less than any other major school district by far, and less than any school district I am aware of in the country on maintenance."

Doug Brown, the current head of LAUSD's Facilities, Asset and Management division, recently warned board members that without additional funds, "that $600 million will grow to $900 million, that $900 million will grow to $1 billion. Pretty soon you have to shut down schools and where are you going to put the kids?"

Across the country, with the exception of newer suburbs, the angle of deferred school maintenance projects is becoming "sharper and sharper," said researcher David Honeyman, director of the Center for Educational Finance at the University of Florida. "Every year you don't fix something, it creates additional problems that need to be fixed."

Indeed, in September, school officials in Washington, D.C., were forced to delay opening 164 public schools in order to fix 4,000 fire code violations including defective boilers, old, faulty wiring, clogged sprinklers and unworkable windows.

With 700 fewer custodians than it had five years ago to care for its 800 schools, the LAUSD deals with maintenance on an emergency-response basis only, Scholl said. District painters are scheduled so rarely that when Maria Tostado, principal of Garfield High School, was told they were coming next in the year 2048, she wasn't sure if they were kidding or not. In fact, it takes 30 to 40 years for a school to get painted on the outside, said Bob Hamms, director of technical services for the LAUSD. Interior paint jobs "would be over 100 years given the current level of funding," he said.

Some worry that dilapidated buildings pose potential hazards and liability. Others cite a "Catch-22" situation in which facilities' rapidly declining worth may jeopardize the district's ability to borrow money to solve the problem.

But others suggest children are paying the price already. Said LAUSD board member Barbara Boudreaux: "It sends a strong message to children. Very strong. 'We don't care about you.' "

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