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It's not just money troubles

A traffic jam exposes the erosion of crucial services. L.A. has lots of entrenched problems that have nothing to do with budget shortfalls.

January 15, 2012|STEVE LOPEZ

It was a traffic jam; we know them all too well. But the doozy in Sherman Oaks last Monday, on the first day of school after a three-week holiday break, was particularly annoying to Alexandra Pettus.

She was trying to get her son to Millikan Middle School, but every alternate route she tried was totally jammed.

"I kept saying to my son, 'You're going to have to get out and walk, 'cause you'll get there quicker.' "

Eventually her son did just that, and when Pettus got home, she called the school to ask what was up.

Some kind of street project, she was told, but the details were sketchy. In fact, as I later found out, it was a resurfacing job.

Pettus didn't object to the work being done, but she had a question. Couldn't they have completed the Hesby Street and Ventura Canyon Avenue jobs during the school's long winter break, rather than at the exact moment 2,200 kids were arriving for class?

"Really?" asked Pettus. "This is how our city planning does it? They must be brain-dead."

Sure, it's a small matter. But this kind of thing affects the quality of life, and it was an avoidable inconvenience.

"It was chaos," said Larry Link, Millikan assistant principal, who rerouted buses on Monday morning in an attempt to get them around the worst of the gridlock.

The principal, John Plevack, told me he had no advance warning. He got to school at 6:45 a.m. sharp and saw a notice posted to the front door.

Pettus, meanwhile, grew more frustrated by the minute on Monday. She called the L.A. City Hall information line at 311, heard Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's recorded voice, followed by a series of beeps and signals, and then: "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and try your call again." She called back only to hear that 311 was "unavailable at this time."

So Pettus went to the website of her councilman, Paul Krekorian, and clicked on a link to the Department of Public Works.

"Sorry," was the response, "this page is no longer valid."

She got more of the same after several efforts, then dialed another phone number and heard: "You have reached a nonworking number." Pettus and her husband, Charlton, emailed a complaint to Krekorian's office.

"The fundamental issue" isn't the construction or "absurd timing," Charlton Pettus said, "but the complete lack of any accountability in local politics."

When I visited the repaving project on Tuesday, the caravan of heavy equipment was idle. I called the Valley street resurfacing office and a clerk answered, saying most of the staff was attending the funeral of a former colleague. He said he'd pass my number on to a field supervisor, but I never got a call.

A couple days later I caught up with Danny Leon, superintendent of Valley resurfacing projects for the Bureau of Street Services. He told me his crews have to complete 70 miles of repaving by mid-year, and it's preferable but not always possible to work around school schedules.

"I constantly check" the L.A. Unified School District website, he said, to take full advantage of days when school is out. But the city's financial problems have meant mandatory furloughs, he said, and his crew was on a one-week break in the middle of the three-week vacation.

It wasn't like this earlier in his 26-year career, Leon said. "Due to the funding cutbacks, it's gotten more difficult for us to maintain the high integrity of the streets." And his division doesn't even do potholes, which of course have become both numerous and legendary.

He also said that when resurfacing has to be done near a school, the work is begun after school starts, and they call it quits before the final bell. But Alexandra Pettus wasn't the only one to see it differently.

"It was horrible. Just horrible," said Millikan PTA President Shana Landsburg, who called the traffic mess "a quagmire of bad planning on the city's part."

But that's not all she was worked up about. Millikan had just learned it was one of more than 20 L.A. Unified schools that will lose federal Title 1 funding. That means a loss of $600,000, according to principal Plevack.

"It's gotten ridiculous," said Landsburg, who added that she's "just exhausted" by pressure on parents to raise money for basic services. She has two older children who attended Millikan a decade ago, and the decline since then is dispiriting. She fears that parents with options will flee public schools in droves if this continues. "We keep asking schools and teachers to get test scores up, but then we constantly bind their hands."

Plevack said he's lost eight of his 10 office assistants in recent years, and class sizes are now 40-1. The next round of cuts, he added, could cost him a librarian, two teachers, a dean and three days of coverage by a nurse.

And so what began as the tale of a traffic jam became a story about the gradual erosion of institutions and services.

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