The U.S. Department of Justice has become involved in a community protest against the Los Angeles Unified School District, after school board President John Greenwood told Wilmington parents last week that he could not promise them money for improvements at an elementary school.
The Justice Department's community relations service, which seeks to mediate civil rights-related controversies, is studying ways to pay for improvements at Wilmington Park Elementary School and is looking into parents' complaints that the school has been deprived of adequate facilities because of racial discrimination, Justice Department spokeswoman Ada A. Santiago Montare said.
"We're trying to find out what can be done to bring the two sides together," said Montare, a conciliator who works to resolve ethnic and race-related disputes before they result in court action or civil unrest. "We are not sure yet what can be done to resolve this dispute, but we are very interested in the problem and will be looking into it."
Greenwood said he was surprised by the Justice Department's interest in the school controversy and maintained that the issue is not related to discrimination.
"The community may see it as a racial issue but I think it's a funding issue," Greenwood said in an interview this week. "I don't know exactly how they can be helpful," he said of the Justice Department, "but I'm willing to hear any of the ideas they have."
The department's involvement comes in the wake of an often stormy meeting last week between about 200 Wilmington Park parents and several school district officials, including Greenwood and fellow board member Larry Gonzales.
Greenwood, board representative for the Wilmington and harbor areas, was to bring parents an answer to their request in February for improvements at Wilmington Park, which parents say has suffered more than a generation of neglect.
Parents say that the mostly Latino school needs a wide range of improvements--everything from a new paint job and window replacements to an auditorium that would seat all 1,115 students to additional bathrooms--but they are first seeking a cafeteria.
Children now eat year-round at unprotected, outdoor picnic tables. When it rains, students eat inside and lose 20 minutes of instruction time because there are not enough aides to help teachers monitor classrooms, school officials say.
"I have three daughters in this school and they express to me how they suffer without a cafeteria," said Adolfo Zuniga. "They tell me that birds drop on their food and it blows away when it's windy."
Said parent Esther Cuevas, a former teacher at Wilmington Park, "One problem is that leaves and dust and dirt fall on their lunch trays. The children are often stuck with eating contaminated food. My child came down with pneumonia once from eating out there, and a lot of kids get sunburned and come down with bleeding noses."
Greenwood told parents that the school district could give them a roof-like covering for their outdoor lunch area--left over after the closing of another school--but could not use its scarce funds to build an enclosed room.
But parents rejected the offer, saying it would not resolve problems of air pollution and chemical contamination in the largely industrial area.
In a remark that drew a chorus of applause, parent Irma Castillo told the school district officials, in a statement translated from Spanish, "Take it and throw it away. We don't want it. You have come here with nothing to give to the community. You have a responsibility to the community, but I don't imagine that you've even tried to help us."
Maria Mendoza, a mother of two Wilmington Park children, said, "I think there's a lot of discrimination and I don't think it's right. The school board thinks that just because we are Mexicans that we don't understand. I understand very well--they haven't promised us anything. Other schools are getting things, and we have been ignored."
Hope for State Money
Although Greenwood maintained that the financially strapped school district must spend all of its construction money to build classrooms to resolve severe overcrowding at inner-city schools, he said that a special state fund may hold money for improvements at Wilmington Park.
"We have done everything we can to apply for those state funds," Greenwood said. "We know this is an old school, and we know that there are things that need to be taken care of that have not been taken care of so far. We would like you to help us and write letters to say that you would like those funds used for this important purpose."
Many parents, however, said they felt that Greenwood passed the buck.
"He made no commitment whatsoever," said PTA President Maria Elena Hernandez. "They should have come and given us some solutions and helped us solve our problem. Instead, they're making us go to someone else for help when they are the ones who should be helping us."
Hernandez added, "All the parents feel the district is neglecting this school. For all the time we've been asking for a cafeteria, we have gotten nothing."
Parents made their first request for a cafeteria 10 years ago. School district officials estimate that a cafeteria would cost $800,000 to $900,000.
But Greenwood argued, "I don't think I'm passing the buck at all. It's our responsibility to do everything we can, and I'm doing everything I can think of right now. Quite frankly, I think it's amazing that we were able to find a way to approach building a cafeteria. We haven't built a cafeteria in 10 years."
The state money would come from a $25-million fund earmarked for California schools that need new facilities because of overcrowding, but do not qualify for other state programs that are designated for schools with more severe problems.
The Los Angeles school district has 18 such schools, for which it has asked the state for $40 million, even though only $25 million is designated for schools throughout California. Wilmington Park is ranked 10 or 11 among the 18 Los Angeles district schools, said to Byron L. Kimball, district director of school facilities services.
Kimball said that about a month ago the district submitted an application for $2.4 million for a cafeteria and six classrooms at Wilmington Park. Kimball said he does not have "the remotest idea" about Wilmington Park's chances for obtaining the new facilities. The state Allocations Board will probably decide by midsummer, he said.
If the application is approved, construction of the cafeteria and six classrooms will begin about 15 months later, Kimball said.
Greenwood also said there may be money available for a cafeteria through another state fund created to modernize school buildings that are more than 30 years old. The main school building at Wilmington Park is about 60 years old.
Wilmington Park is ranked between 260 and 300 on a list of 300 Los Angeles area schools eligible for modernization funds, Kimball said. The Los Angeles district has asked for about $200 million for its schools from the $350-million statewide program.
If Wilmington Park's application for this state program is approved, about $900,000 would be allocated for the school, but it could be used only for interior renovation. Kimball said the money may be used to help convert the school's auditorium into a lunch area but, because new construction is not allowed under the program, the lunch area would probably not create new seating much beyond the auditorium's current capacity of about 330 students.
If the modernization money was not used for a lunch area, it could be used for such improvements as painting, electrical wiring, plumbing and lighting work and additional cabinets. Money for improvements could be available in about 1 1/2 years if the 8-month-old Wilmington Park application is approved, Kimball said.
(Money from California's upcoming lottery, which is designated for public education, may not be used for school construction or building improvements.)
The uncertainty over whether Wilmington Park will obtain a share in the state programs drew frustration from parents, who said they have already waited too long for improvements.
"You don't promise nothing--why?" asked parent Jose Auguela, who said he is a construction worker and is willing to help paint or reconstruct the old school building.
"Our concern is our home, our school, our children," said Hernandez, the PTA president. "We don't even have enough bathrooms for our children."
Parents also complained about not being told when a cafeteria would be built if the school's application for state money was approved.
"It's not my decision," answered Greenwood. "I don't know how long they're going to take in Sacramento."
Will Write Legislators
Despite parents' disappointment over Greenwood's answers, they said this week that they will follow his advice and write their state legislators about Wilmington Park's needs.
"Parents feel the school board should be doing this, but we've decided to ask the state for the funds that are available," Hernandez said. "We will write the people that they told us to write to and we will see what happens."