District May Take Over Job at Gardner Elementary : School Contractor Given 'Last' Deadline

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Unified School District officials have vowed to use district workers to complete the long-delayed construction project at Gardner Elementary School if the contractor hired to do the job fails to finish by the end of June.

The officials made the promise to a group of parents last week as the $700,000 project to add air conditioning, an elevator and other improvements to Gardner's 66-year-old main building stretched more than a year and a half behind schedule.

The school has remained open during the construction, and teachers, parents and students have been complaining about the conditions for months.

"It's just more of the same thing," said Judith Drury, a parent. "They make promises and never deliver. It's been one delay after another."

During the construction, there have been shortages of toilets, drinking fountains and wash basins for the nearly 500 students at the school. Books and supplies were distributed late because they were packed away because of construction work over the summer. During the winter, students were assigned to bungalows where the heating systems worked only sporadically. The school library has been shut down, and there is no computer lab.

The project, which was supposed to be completed in late 1987, was delayed because of asbestos removal, squabbles between the contractor and architect and equipment failures.

Most recently, the contractor signed a work schedule indicating that the job would be completed by April 25. But parents were told last week that the job was only 80% finished, and a new completion date was slated for the end of June.

"If the job is not completed by then, then the district will either hire additional contractors or subcontractors to finish it, or we'll bring in our own crews to do it," said Mel Ross, an official in the district's building services division.

Ross said the contractor needs to finish work on the painting, air conditioning, electrical system, elevators, ceilings and some paving and clean up.

A spokesman for the contractor, Levin Construction Co. of North Hollywood, did not return calls seeking comment.

The contract with the construction firm called for a $500-a-day fine for unnecessary delays beyond the 271 days allotted in the contract to complete the job. However, school officials said a determination of whether the contractor has violated the agreement will not be made until after the job is completed, in keeping with standard practice.

Los Angeles school board member Alan Gershman, whose district includes the school, described the project as a "disaster where rules and regulations have been stretched to the limit by the contractor. He has taken every legal loophole, and we don't have a solid foundation to go after him on."

Gershman, who faces a June runoff for reelection, said he supports the call for tough action against the contractor. However, Gershman has been criticized by parents who say he has not done enough to force completion of the project.

"He came to the meeting, but it was like he didn't know what was going on. He had no answers. It was like it was all new to him," said Angie Ranslem, a parent.

The project continues to be a source of frustration for many. The controversy forced the principal to take a leave earlier this year, and since then, the school has had two interim principals.

"It's a bad situation," said Jeff Sweeney, the school's current principal. "But the teachers are professionals, and I don't believe the children are losing anything."

Laureen Mitchell, a kindergarten teacher and a union spokeswoman, said everyone has been under a strain. "We have had three administrators since September. That has caused problems," she said. "It's hard having to adapt to different management styles, different expectations."

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