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District's Bathroom Brouhaha

June 18, 2002|DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even as they preside over painful budget cuts, leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District are not being asked to compromise their personal hygiene.

Workers are installing private bathrooms for the seven elected trustees and Supt. Roy Romer at the district's new headquarters. The total cost for the 7- by 8-foot restrooms, each with a toilet and a sink, is about $100,000, officials said.

That is part of more than $180 million being spent to buy, renovate and move into the 29-story former bank building on Beaudry Avenue just west of the Harbor Freeway near downtown. The district's current headquarters on nearby Grand Avenue, where school board members long have had private bathrooms, is being converted to a high school campus.

The spending on the new bathrooms is angering the teachers union, which also is protesting the recent series of spending cutbacks that will raise many class sizes and reduce services in the nation's second-largest school district.

"It's outrageous," said Day Higuchi, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles. The union, which keeps a sharp eye on bureaucratic extravagance, dug up a building permit showing that the district is spending $1.6 million for improvements to the new headquarters' 24th floor, where the private bathrooms are. District officials said that represents upgrades such as basic wiring and plumbing being done on each floor.

"What that translates into is kids are paying for it directly," Higuchi said.

An informal survey indicated that students concur.

"The fact that they might spend money on that, I don't think it's right," said Lilia Torres, student body president of Jefferson High School, where the ratio of students to bathrooms is estimated by a community group at more than 500 to 1. Students generally said the bathrooms are inconvenient, crowded and dirty, though many blamed vandalism by schoolmates for some of the problems.

Unlike a few years ago, when many of Jefferson's bathrooms were out of order or locked, they all are in use today, school officials said.

Principal Norm Morrow, who came to the school in August, said he hopes to increase supervision in the restrooms. "We're only as good as the number of people we have working daily," Morrow said.

At the new headquarters, the eight executive bathrooms are spartan, said Anne Valenzuela Smith, the district's executive administrator for business issues. "No tubs or showers. A toilet and a sink, a couple of hooks for hanging up stuff. Linoleum floors, four walls and the plumbing to go with it," she said. "It's very, very basic."

Valenzuela Smith said board members need personal space. "Public officials are accosted in the hallways. They get stopped by members of the public, other employees. They get lobbied," she said. "We are going to provide them a private bathroom so they can have a moment."

Board President Caprice Young said private bathrooms for herself and the board members are not needed, although they have them now. But district planners decided to add the perk in the new building without consulting her, Young said.

"They are sort of de rigueur for elected officials in Los Angeles," she said. "I'm sure that's why staff made the decision to put them in. If I was personally polled, I would have said, 'Why bother?' " She said that it was too late to stop the construction when she learned of it and that it would cost more to rip out the plumbing than would be saved.

Young said she did not micromanage planning for the new headquarters at 333 S. Beaudry Ave. But she did reject a couple of items that came up during hallway conversations, such as proposed board chairs at $1,300 apiece. "We can continue to use our same board chairs," Young said.

Actually, the practice of supplying elected officials with private bathrooms isn't as prevalent as Young supposed. Los Angeles County's five supervisors each have one. But in the recent renovation of Los Angeles City Hall, only eight of the 15 City Council offices were designed with private bathrooms, the city's office of chief legislative analyst reports. The offices were distributed by seniority. The other council members use bathrooms in their office suites, shared by their staffs.

The bathroom issue is the latest in a succession of controversies involving the district headquarters relocation. Critics allege that the new building, for which the district paid $75 million, is an unsuitable white elephant. They are angry that additional funds topping $100 million are being spent on renovations and other post-purchase costs, including reinforcement of 19 floors that could not otherwise support all district files and office equipment.

An internal district audit warned that the costs could continue to escalate, and some employees who have moved complain of uneven floors even after the reinforcement. Because Bank of America won't vacate the building entirely until 2006, the district must continue to lease some space elsewhere for its staff.

And, since the new building doesn't have enough parking for employees and the public, a plan under consideration would be to buy the adjacent large garage and building once home to the Pacific Stock Exchange's Los Angeles trading floor.

The bathrooms came up for debate among senior staff a few months ago because the new building had far fewer than the current headquarters. A decision was made not to replicate the dozens of private bathrooms used by senior staff at the old headquarters on Grand Avenue, Valenzuela Smith said.

People losing their private bathrooms are taking it bravely.

Maria Ott, deputy superintendent for instruction, said she never thought of her bathroom as private. "Many people use the one I have when they are here for meetings," she said.

District General Counsel Harold J. Kwalwasser said that the new building will be a great improvement, regardless of his personal inconvenience. "I can live without the bathroom," he said.

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