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Fix Broken Windows and Promises

How can we expect children to learn in classrooms that are falling apart from age and disrepair?

March 30, 1997|MIKE R. BOWLIN | Mike R. Bowlin is chairman and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Atlantic Richfield Co. He is a graduate of public schools and the public university system in Texas

Imagine a Southern California corporation that was content to use facilities that had gone essentially unrepaired for three-quarters of a century. Outrageous, you say? Unsafe? Call out the occupational-safety police? Close the business until repairs are made?

There is such an enterprise. It employs more people in Los Angeles than any local manufacturer. It serves nearly a million customers a day. Its annual budget approaches $5 billion. It operates nearly 1,000 active "factories."

Yet this enterprise has an aging physical plant that would make even the tiniest mom-and-pop market look like a palace. Many of these facilities are decaying and present safety hazards. More than 100 are more than 75 years old, built and still operated according to standards set when Teddy Roosevelt was president.

This creaking behemoth is the physical plant of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Its neglected buildings and classrooms are a disaster waiting to happen. On dozens of campuses where tiny children and young adults attempt to learn:

% Roofs leak during classes, ruining precious books and school lunches.

% Broken toilets back up, spewing filth onto lavatory floors.

% More than 9,000 classrooms swelter without air conditioning in the heat of summer.

% Hundreds of classrooms struggle with old, faulty heating systems.

% Many buildings still need earthquake strengthening.

This physical plant decay is L.A.'s hidden shame--and an international scandal.

On April 8, voters can do something about it. Proposition BB proposes to bring our schools up to code, repair school safety hazards, modernize decaying classrooms and further reduce class sizes. The measure would permit issuance of bonds to raise $2.4 billion and stop the collapse of our neighborhood schools.

This same proposal was on the ballot last November, and it achieved more "yes" votes than any other measure. But the 65.5% approval it won was 10,000 votes short of the two-thirds standard required. That translates to about 13 more "yes" votes needed per school in the district.

The coming collapse of L.A. Unified's physical plant is simply too serious a threat, too massive a danger, too widespread a consequence to be addressed in any other way. Federal funds available for L.A. schools are circumscribed in their application. Lottery revenue can be applied only to purchasing textbooks and instructional supplies. And the physical needs of our schools are not cosmetic, patch-and-paint repairs that can be done by neighborhood volunteers. This is a massive problem and it needs to be addressed immediately.

A broken window in a classroom reflects a broken bond with our children and our future. And any social scientist will tell you this: Disintegrating schools make for disintegrating communities. Property values decline. Juvenile vagrancy and petty crime rise. Businesses leave as break-ins and petty theft by truants erode profit margins.

Education remains the prime ticket and the last best hope for entering America's economic mainstream. Our schools are the front line in the endless battle to prepare our youngsters as self-reliant adults, ready to earn in today's global economy, ready to participate fully in our democratic society.

Visit one of our older public schools this week, then answer this question: Would you want to work there?

If the answer is no, then ask yourself one more: Can you really expect our children to learn there?

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