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Disabled access in schools faulted

Random audit finds that 19 L.A. Unified schools have not made upgrades for the handicapped. Monitor says district has acted in 'bad faith.'

May 31, 2007|Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writer

An audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District's progress in building and remodeling schools to make them accessible to the disabled found chronic problems in the design of parking, restrooms, ramps and drinking water fountains, as well as a troubling lack of documentation and misstatements of accomplishments.

"We find this to be really offensive and frankly kind of squandering limited tax resources that are designed to build schools for everyone," said Catherine Blakemore, a lawyer with the public interest law firm Protection and Advocacy.

Her firm was one of three that sued the school system in 1993 on behalf of disabled students, principally alleging that the district had failed to provide adequate special education.

The suit resulted in two consent decrees, known as the Chanda Smith decrees, in which the district agreed to make future schools accessible to the disabled and spend at least $87.5 million to upgrade existing campuses to provide access, in compliance with state and federal laws. An independent monitor was appointed by the court to review the district's performance.

"The progress report raises serious issues," school district general counsel Kevin Reed said in a written statement Wednesday. The school system is reviewing the report and will come up with an "action plan" within 60 days, he said. He did not address specific problems.

The audit, performed by Disability Access Consultants, found ramps with handrails that stopped short, new bleachers without wheelchair seating and outdoor lunch tables without wheelchair access. Bathrooms or stalls marked for use by the disabled did not provide proper clearance or the appropriate height for wheelchair users.

Auditors found numerous problems in each of the 19 schools selected randomly for compliance, including four new campuses.

It was the latest audit in a series commissioned by the monitor, but the first to tackle disabled access. In a scathing letter to the school board and superintendent, monitor Frederick Weintraub said the district had failed so dismally that it "appears indicative of a systemic problem in the management and oversight of the district's facilities program."

Weintraub directed the school system to hire an accessibility expert to oversee the upgrades.

Weintraub said it is impossible to know how much the district has spent on projects to improve access, because after nearly a year of meetings, telephone calls and broken promises, the district had acted in "bad faith" by failing to provide backup documentation for a majority of projects that had been chosen for the audit.

District staff acknowledged that three projects reported as completed had never been started, and a site visit of one school found that work that was shown to be finished was not.

The district kept a log intended to outline the renovations completed for disabled access, but the audit showed it to be "considerably inaccurate in many areas and a misrepresentation of funds expended. These inaccuracies extend beyond what may be characterized as reporting errors," Weintraub wrote.

He questioned the district's decision to include as disability access improvements $66 million in fire alarm strobe light upgrades, when the reduction of barriers should have been given higher priority. The log also included projects labeled class-size reduction and earthquake repair.


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