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School Throws in Towel on Saving Gym : After 6 Months’ Work, Only Way to Remove Asbestos Is to Raze Building

Times Staff Writer

The only gymnasium for school children on Santa Catalina Island contains so much asbestos that it cannot be made safe, officials have decided, so it is being torn down.

For six months, workers from the mainland had been removing the carcinogenic material, used for fireproofing and insulation. Then officials from the Long Beach Unified School District and the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration concluded that there was so much asbestos behind the building’s walls and ceilings and beneath the floor that it could never be removed entirely.

Last week, the gym started coming down.

Enshrouded in plastic to prevent asbestos dust from escaping, the free-standing corrugated-steel building is being razed by a demolition crew. The district spent $400,000 to remove the asbestos and expects to spend another $200,000 on the demolition, said district spokesman Richard Van Der Laan. Avalon residents have watched the gym’s destruction with regret and nostalgia.

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“In our small community, there are an awful lot of residents who had memorable moments in that gym,” said Jon Meyer, principal of Avalon’s four schools. “The attitude is one of sad resignation.”

The building has been “kind of a landmark in Avalon for a number of years,” Meyer said. It was donated to the school district in the 1950s by the Wrigley chewing gum family.

Since asbestos removal closed the gym, basketball games have been played in the ballroom of the city’s ornate Casino. Assemblies have been held in shifts in the school’s 185-seat auditorium or on the baseball field. Graduation ceremonies, usually held in the gym, will be held in the ballroom’s auditorium until a new gym is built, school officials said.

But prospects for a new gym are uncertain, district officials said.

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The school district is facing a budget deficit and doesn’t have the money to build a gym at Avalon, Van Der Laan said. There are no plans or cost estimates for a new gym, but the district is applying for funding from the State Board of Education, he said.

An architect will visit the school grounds next week as a preliminary step toward drawing up plans for a gym, Meyer said.

The decision to raze the present gym was based on the recommendations of a private asbestos abatement company and an independent laboratory, officials said.

Bringing the gym’s airborne asbestos level to the federally accepted standards of one fiber per cubic centimeter or less was “technically impossible” in the old, poorly constructed building, said Ron Tessada, maintenance director for the school district.

Complete Removal Impossible

The substance was “all over the building, and even under the building,” Tessada said. “We would have had to cut holes in the hardwood floor and vacuum it out.”

Removal was especially frustrating because areas full of asbestos were continually being found, often in parts of the gym the cleanup crew could not reach, Tessada said.

“It’s been a real bear for us,” Tessada said. The district has incurred a “horrible” expense in its efforts to get the asbestos out, he said.

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One reason for the $600,000 cost was the expense of shipping asbestos-removal equipment back and forth to the island by barge, Tessada said. Other expenses included housing the five-member removal crew in a $1,000-a-month Avalon condominium for six months to avoid daily commuting to Catalina. Debris from the demolished building will have to be shipped to a toxic waste site near Santa Barbara.

But the district is hoping to defray part of the cost with money provided by Proposition 79, the $800-million School Facilities Bond Act passed last November, Van Der Laan said.

The act set aside $100 million for “identification, assessment and abatement of hazardous asbestos materials” in the state’s schools.

The school district has applied for reimbursement of the entire cost of removing the asbestos, as well as 75% of the cost of tearing down the building, Van Der Laan said.

David Zian, a school facilities program analyst with the state’s Lease-Purchase Asbestos Abatement program in Sacramento, said the district is eligible under Proposition 79 for reimbursement of 75% of the demolition costs.

However, the State Allocation Board has not decided whether to reimburse the district for the cost of removing the asbestos, Zian said.

Meanwhile, the absence of a gym has taken a toll on student life, parents, teachers and students said.

Only 1 School Dance

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Tanya Vojkovich, 16, said there has been only one school dance this year, instead of the usual five or six. “It’s a bummer, kids are really depressed,” said Vojkovich, who is a junior.

The lack of a gym has left some student athletes with “not very much to do anymore,” said Terry Stonier, a 16-year-old junior.

Vojkovich and Stonier, both members of the girls’ basketball team, said they may quit the team if there is no place to play home games. Otherwise, they would have to make as many as 10 trips to the mainland next season.

Avalon teams must take a boat and a bus to get to such games, and stay overnight in a hotel. Usually there are about four such trips a year, and the teams usually play two games per trip. Road trips are tiring, students said, as well as expensive because they must pay for their own meals.

Although the Santa Catalina Island Co. allowed the school to use the Casino ballroom for home basketball games this year, the ballroom is being renovated for the Casino’s 60th anniversary and will be unavailable next year, said company spokesman Ron Doutt.

“I know it’s not the school’s fault,” Vojkovich said. “I know it takes a long time to get money (for a new gym), but it’s just not fair.”

Tanya’s mother, Carol Vojkovich, said many parents are upset over the loss of the gym.

“Where’s all the school district’s money going, if they can’t have a new gym?” she asked. “The kids have nothing else to do. That’s what the boys and girls look forward to during the winter, that’s the only sport.”


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