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School Board's Royal Flush

June 19, 2002

The seven members of the Los Angeles Board of Education and schools Supt. Roy Romer evidently need a refresher course on the power of political symbolism. Their dulled and shrugging response to the construction of personal restrooms for each of them--at a time when the students they claim to represent go without--is stunning in its cluelessness.

To use a teacher's classroom phrase, think of this as a lesson in compare and contrast.

Here's what the students at Bethune Middle School in South Los Angeles get: holes in the wall where fixtures had been, no toilet paper, no soap, no paper towels and no doors on the stalls. And here's what the kids at Palms Middle School get: graffiti, scratched toilets, protruding, rusted, broken fixtures and grimy floors. And the fun doesn't end there. At Venice High School, graffiti may have been painted over in a student restroom but that did nothing to lessen the overpowering stench of waste in clogged toilets.

And here's what the school board members and the superintendent will get: individual, brand-spanking-new, clean and functioning restrooms at the district's new headquarters.

We're certainly not suggesting that it would be right for the board and Romer to have to endure what students must put up with every day. But did the disconnection between the services supplied to children and those provided to administrators give pause to no one in Los Angeles Unified School District management?

Everybody does it, said board President Caprice Young, pointing to other politicians with personal bathrooms. She says that it would have been micromanagement for the board to look at the small-time $100,000 expenditure for restrooms. And the restrooms aren't luxurious. After all, Romer added, they don't have showers!

The LAUSD promised better restrooms for students in 2000 when the district began operating a Clean Bathroom Hotline. The number, (800) 495-1191, still works. The complaints are said to get priority. Given what our quick survey turned up, that's hard to believe.

The district, reacting to statewide budget woes, is cutting the schools' budgets severely. Jobs for custodians who would clean up the messes in the student lavatories are being jettisoned. Yet, somehow, the individual restrooms for the board and Romer remain in the budget, untouched by the harsh realities that affect others.

It's not that the $100,000 could make the challenges of the school district disappear. But the tin political ear of the district continues to astound. In politics, symbols matter. That $100,000, we'd bet, would have bought a lot of functioning toilets and paper towels. For the students. You know, the people in the classrooms for whom the LAUSD supposedly exists.

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