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Surprise Inspections of Schools Are Planned

The city attorney wants officials to check public campuses for health and safety violations.

November 04, 2003|Erika Hayasaki and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo announced Monday that he wants the city and county to begin conducting surprise health and safety inspections of public schools, a move that took Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer by surprise.

Delgadillo said he felt a moral obligation to send inspectors to campuses to make sure bathrooms are clean, cafeterias are free from vermin and fire escapes are functioning. Neighborhood prosecutors in his office have fielded complaints from parents about dreadful conditions, including rats and falling ceiling tiles.

"When conditions improve, scores improve," Delgadillo said.

Under his plan, which requires approval by the City Council and county officials, inspectors would arrive unannounced and, if necessary, issue citations for violations. Delgadillo said he is not sure whether officials would have the power to compel the cash-strapped school district to fix problems, but that results of the inspections would be made public to parents, who would probably lobby for improvements.

In general, school districts are subject to state and not local regulations, but Delgadillo on Monday said it's his legal opinion that local government has the authority to inspect campuses.

City Council President Alex Padilla and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky are backing the plan. A spokesman for Padilla said the council president planned to introduce a motion this week to create a joint city and county task force charged with inspecting schools.

But Romer and other school officials said they were taken off guard by the plan and questioned whether it was necessary.

"The thing that surprised me is they would not call me up and talk to me about it before they do it," he said. The district already is vigilant about health and safety issues, he said, and in a time of tight budgets "we simply do not need 20 different agencies" working on the same issue. He said a better course would be for the city to ask "what can we do to help. "

The superintendent said the Los Angeles Unified Environmental Health and Safety Inspection program was recently praised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a letter that read: "LAUSD's program is the most progressive in the nation and will serve as an excellent model for other school districts throughout the country."

"We have really focused upon this and went into very great detail to do self-inspections, and we're quite critical of ourselves," Romer said.

Last year, he said, the district directed $10 million to adding bathroom attendants, and another $10 million to bathroom repairs. In addition, he said, the district has spent $3 billion over the last few years to upgrade and modernize buildings, which "has made a great difference. But like any public agency, we have much more to do."

The complaints cited by Delgadillo's neighborhood prosecutors are not disputed by district officials. Last year, during their first systematic safety examination in decades, inspectors found thousands of violations.

School board member David Tokofsky said he would welcome "building inspectors in to help ensure the health and safety of our kitchens, bathrooms and classrooms." But, he said, "in this budget climate in California, it's not a time to duplicate government efforts."

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