When a small earthquake in Mexico destroyed the structural integrity of a ball wall at Thomas Jefferson Elementary in 2009, it meant the end of play for students.
“It just really became clear to us it was not safe,” said Principal Melissa Kistler.
School board President Larry Applebaum, a neighbor of the school whose daughter was in second grade at the time, assessed the damage himself.
“You could lean against the wall and you could deflect the wall about 9 inches,” he said. “The whole center support was rotted out.”
It was the same wall Applebaum played handball at as a student at Jefferson in the 1960s.
But amid districtwide budget cuts, Burbank Unified officials initially looked for parents to pitch in, even though they were already supporting the school's librarian, computer technician and music teacher.
Then came the discovery of a photo at the district's headquarters from 1966: kids lined up for the monkey bars, the wall in the background.
Speaking to then-Burbank Unified Supt. Stan Carrizosa, Applebaum used the photo to make the case that if the ball wall stood in the 1960s, it had been there since 1948, when the school opened. He argued that the wall deserved the district's deferred maintenance funds over parents' contributions.
Looking closer, Applebaum realized he was “the funny boy with the turned up cuffs” in the photo.
“I'm standing there with my arms crossed in a manner I have done my entire life,” he said.
The photo began a new conversation “about the propriety for taking responsibility of all physical assets,” Applebaum said, and not leaving structural costs to parents.
Last fall, the district moved forward. It cost $61,224 to replace the wall, add a second on Jefferson's lower playground and a third at Disney Elementary — the only elementary campus without one.
All three were installed for the new school year, but Applebaum still thinks of the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who never saw a ball wall at Jefferson again.
“They're now at John Muir and they're middle schoolers and that's not an issue,” he said.
Fifth-grader Jakob Duarte remembered playing two-player handball with his friends in second grade until it was removed from Jefferson.
Now 10, Jakob said, “We didn't get to play anymore and that made me sad. That's OK, because we have it now.”
Follow Kelly on Twitter @kellymcorrigan.