Wilmington Wins 12-Year Battle for School Cafeteria

Times Staff Writer

After struggling 12 years to obtain a cafeteria for their neighborhood elementary school, Wilmington parents this week won approval of a $2.5-million construction project that includes the long-sought lunchroom and six classrooms.

The Los Angeles school board on Monday approved an agreement with the state that allocates $2.5 million in California reconstruction funds for building the two-story facility and purchasing three parcels of land to expand Wilmington Park Elementary School's overcrowded campus.

The agreement, which was unanimously approved by the six members present, was credited in large part to the stalwart efforts of Wilmington parents to draw attention to the needs of their predominantly Latino, low-income school.

Parents first requested a cafeteria 12 years ago and have become increasingly vocal on the issue during the last 1 1/2 years. They have taken their plea for new facilities from the Los Angeles Unified School District to the state superintendent of public instruction to the governor's office.

'Taken Way Too Long'

"These parents have worked long and hard for this," said John Greenwood, school board member representing Wilmington and surrounding harbor communities. "It's taken way too long . . . (but) I think this is a really important moment for this community, which has been shorted by government agencies for a long time."

Wilmington Park's 1,110 students currently eat lunch outdoors at unprotected picnic tables. Parents complain that the arrangement exposes their children to poor weather and that pollution from nearby industries contaminates students' lunches.

If the weather is bad, students eat in their classrooms. But under this arrangement they lose 20 minutes of instruction time because teachers must take turns monitoring the classrooms and taking their own 20-minute lunch breaks.

Approval of the construction project was hailed by the 50 Wilmington parents who attended both Monday's school board meeting and a reception held by Greenwood in the parents' honor. The parents' only objection to the plan was the estimated 3 to 3 1/2 years it will take to build the cafeteria.

'Happy About the Money'

"We are happy about the money, and we know we deserve it," said Irma Castillo, president of the Wilmington Park PTA and leader of the fight for the cafeteria. "Now we have to work on the time. Three to 3 1/2 years is too long. When you are happy, three years is nothing. But when you see the way the children suffer, three yeArs is a long time."

The project will take that long to complete because, even though the plan has been approved, each phase of it must be endorsed by the state Allocation Board, said Byron L. Kimball, director of school facilities services for the Los Angeles district.

Adding to the lengthy building schedule are negotiations to acquire the property and the commissioning of an environmental impact report, Kimball said.

Included in the school board's action Monday was the appointment of an architect, Jimenez & Associates. The architect will meet with Wilmington parents by the end of the school year in June to discuss preliminary plans for the project, Kimball said.

Seat 350 Indoors

As tentatively planned, the new lunchroom will seat 300 to 350 students indoors, while providing a covered outdoor eating area for another 250 to 300 students.

"We can't afford, in terms of funding, to build a cafeteria that seats 1,000," Kimball said. "We can't afford to build that much space to be used during one period."

Wilmington Park Principal Claire Sizgorich said that won't be a problem.

"We're staggering lunch periods right now, and when this is built we'll stagger the lunches so all the children eat indoors," Sizgorich said. "No one likes to eat their lunch seasoned with oil refinery soot and other pollutants."

District officials said this is the first time in more than 12 years that money has been allocated for construction of a cafeteria in an existing school in the financially strapped Los Angeles district, except in cases where buildings have been renovated to meet earthquake standards.

Proposition 26 Funds

The state's funding of the Wilmington project came in a decision by the state Allocation Board about two weeks ago, 10 months after Los Angeles officials submitted an application for the project under a special reconstruction program funded by a 1984 state bond issue, Proposition 26.

Wilmington Park was one of nine schools in the Los Angeles district that met the criteria of the state program, including such factors as enrollment increases and the age of school structures. The other eight schools also received state money or are expected to.

Wilmington Park's application was granted primarily because of the 77-year-old school's "severe need," said Patti Forste, analyst and field representative for the state Allocation Board. Forste also said that a recent decision by the state board to hold its meetings every week, rather than once a month, may expedite Wilmington Park's construction schedule.

In another recent action by the state board, Wilmington Park was awarded another $1.2 million to upgrade its facilities.

"I think it's about time Wilmington got something," said school board member Greenwood. "Wilmington has always been a stepchild and hasn't gotten a lot of attention from government. I think this is the first step of many steps of people starting to pay attention to Wilmington."

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