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L.A. schools falling apart, literally

Years of budget cuts have meant many repairs simply aren't getting done. There are at least 35,442 unresolved calls for service and repairs, with about 1,100 more coming in each day.

March 12, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • The bleachers in the Marshall High School gymnasium are an example of disrepair plaguing L.A. Unified schools, with holes in floorboards, jutting metal stumps where seats used to be, entire rows of missing seats, and traffic cones and yellow caution tape cordoning off particularly dangerous sections.
The bleachers in the Marshall High School gymnasium are an example of disrepair… (Steve Lopez / Los Angeles…)

The dilapidated bleachers at Marshall High School in Silver Lake have been in such a sorry state for so long, I stopped noticing until recently, when I saw a grandfather teeter as he stepped over a sinkhole in the floorboards.

That made me really look around, as my daughter played in a city recreation league basketball game. It wasn't pretty.

I saw jutting metal stumps where seats used to be. Entire rows of seats were missing, traffic cones and yellow caution tape were used to cordon off particularly dangerous sections, and a folding chair was planted over a hole to keep people from tumbling into it.

Why do deplorable conditions like this exist, in one of L.A. Unified's most highly regarded high schools, for years on end?

Part of the answer can be found in numbers. In the last five years, the district has lost about 500 custodians and plant managers, along with about 650 carpenters, electricians and plumbers, according to chief facilities executive Mark Hovatter.

"What we used to do with $220 million a year, we are now trying to do with $86 million," said Hovatter.

So what does this mean? It means that many of the district's 763 schools, especially the oldest ones, are falling apart. It takes months and sometimes years for the district to respond to calls for repairs, and when I asked for specifics, I couldn't believe the numbers.

"We get a lot of work orders," said Hovatter. "About 1,100 a day."

Eleven hundred?

Yes, he said.

Many of those are quick fixes. But there's an enormous backlog of tougher cases. How enormous?

As of Monday, there were 35,442 unresolved calls for service and repairs, some of them going back several years.

Many calls are for relatively minor problems like peeling paint or burned-out light bulbs that are too high for school staff to replace. But far bigger projects await attention, as well.

It all keeps repair crews hustling across the district like triage doctors, doing what they can to deal with leaky roofs and overflowing toilets, with malfunctioning elevators and broken air conditioners and heaters.

There's a rotten ceiling beam in a classroom at Twain Middle School, where the heating and air conditioning are on the fritz in the main office. Termites are munching on rafters in the lunch shelter at Virginia Road Elementary School. Electrical wiring is exposed at 75th Street Elementary School.

Reseda High School has 241 service requests pending, for broken desks and chairs, missing ceiling tiles, damaged flooring, broken sprinklers, damaged lunch tables and broken toilet paper dispensers, to name just a few problems.

Mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel told me her son was complaining about how hot it was at his L.A. Unified elementary school, and she thought he was merely talking about the weather. It turned out the air conditioner in his classroom was broken.

School board member Tamar Galatzan told me that she knows, based on what school is hosting her kids' ballgames, whether to take her own chair because of a bleacher problem or an extra wrap because the heater doesn't work.

Is this the best time, then, for the district to consider spending hundreds of millions of dollars on digital tablets for every one of the 600,000-plus students, as Supt. John Deasy has recommended? Galatzan, who supported a $50-million pilot tablet program, said she'd like to see the results and the reviews by students and teachers before buying any additional devices.

Fair enough, but let's hope the kids aren't sitting under a leaky roof as they tap away on their new computers.

Marshall High — built in 1930 — has 136 service requests pending at the moment, including one for the crumbling Gothic tower that rises above the main entrance.

"The mortar between the bricks was not repaired at the time of the 1972 earthquake, so water has leaked in and rusted the rebar," said Principal Daniel Harrison. "As the rusted rebar expands, you have bricks and you have chunks coming off the tower."

When a chunk crashed onto the roof last year, Harrison demanded that something be done to ensure student safety. Scaffolding was erected, with a wooden platform to catch any falling bricks or concrete, and the main entrance to the school was shut down. It remains that way today.

L.A. Unified is not alone in struggling with falling-apart schools. A report Tuesday from the Center for Green Schools, with a forward from former President Clinton, said it would take half a trillion dollars to repair and modernize the nation's schools so they meet health and safety standards.

In retrospect, with recent bond measures in Los Angeles, there may have been too much focus on building new schools, and too little on fixing existing ones. Hovatter told me he's hoping there's enough wiggle room on existing bond money to make a bigger dent in the repair backlog this year and next. But he said it would take billions of dollars and many years to replace the district's failing roofs, sewage lines and heating and air conditioning systems.

As for the purchase of tablets, Deasy told me that new technology was specifically covered under the latest bond measure. Though many of his budget decisions have been difficult, he said his first priority has been clear all along.

"When we went through huge, catastrophic reductions in California, we held on to the most critical thing, which was teachers," he said.

Schools aren't alone, he added, in dealing with declining infrastructure.

"Take a look at roads. Take a look at bridges. Take a look at national parks."

I'm looking, and from where I sit in the bleachers, I see us sabotaging our own best interests, underinvesting in our children's futures, and paying a price that is becoming ever more evident, everywhere you look.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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