L.A. Schools Get Mixed Grades for Quake Response
The Los Angeles Unified School District gets a mixed report card for its response to the Jan. 17 earthquake that thrust the caretaker of 640,000 students each day into its most severe emergency test.
The nation’s second-largest school system is praised for cleaning up the mess and reopening most of its 645 campuses eight days after the quake. But the district is also criticized for its immediate reaction to the quake and for leaving parents, students and principals without basic information.
Among the critiques are:
* The district’s disaster plan was never formally activated, and for several hours after the quake no one was clearly in charge. Supt. Sid Thompson was out of town and his two top deputies stayed at their damaged Valley homes.
“There wasn’t any game plan that we were able to perceive of from the district,” said Eli Brent, president of the union for principals and district administrators. “I did not see the czar for the earthquake.”
* When principals reported to schools to begin surveying damage, dozens found they had no way on campus to summon help for leaking water pipes and gas lines. Some went in search of pay phones or went home to make calls.
* Parents were told to call an 800 number for vital school information, but most got nothing more than a busy signal for more than a week. An antiquated, six-line telephone answering system was to blame.
* On the day of the quake, the Board of Education’s TV station, KLCS Channel 58, was scheduled to be dark to save money. When it got back on the air the next day, the station resumed its usual programming.
* Bickering between unions and the school board resulted in no one from the district attending a meeting to discuss possible school aid with Mayor Richard Riordan and the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
By all accounts, the 4:31 a.m. quake did not fully test the school district’s ability to cope with catastrophe. Children were at home and campuses were closed for the Martin Luther King holiday.
Nonetheless, there was physical damage to 197 schools and more than 1,500 classrooms. Many campuses in the San Fernando Valley were without power, water or phones for days.
The first week after the quake all 645 schools were shut. All but 97 opened Tuesday, Jan. 25. As of Monday, all but three schools in the West San Fernando Valley will be operating, though many students are in makeshift classrooms without books and other supplies.
“It’s remarkable how fast they moved and how quickly they made the right decisions,” said Maureen DiMarco, the top education adviser to Gov. Pete Wilson and a past critic of the Los Angeles district. “Sid (Thompson) knew how he wanted to proceed and headed straight for it. I didn’t see anything resembling a serious glitch.”
“In most ways they have responded beautifully,” said Helen Bernstein, who as president of United Teachers-Los Angeles clashes often with the district’s leadership.
Thompson said there were heroic efforts--principals who entered dark, hazardous classrooms alone, maintenance workers who began to clean up before buildings were inspected, and many employees who left damaged homes to come to work.
Although it was the worst emergency in the school district’s history, Thompson said it was primarily a problem of damaged buildings.
“We haven’t been tested because children were not in session,” Thompson said. “What has been tested in our operation is what we do about facilities.
“I take responsibility for any stumbling around that occurred,” he said. “But we got these schools up in record time considering what we were looking at.”
Thompson said he saw no need to activate the disaster response plan and open a full-blown emergency operations center. That would have assembled a cadre of top administrators from all departments to coordinate decision-making from one nerve center Downtown.
“If I had had students on board I would have had 50 people in this office because then you would have been talking about injury and death,” Thompson said. “This was different. This was the physical plant.”
When the quake struck, Thompson was in Albuquerque visiting relatives. The district’s No. 2 official, Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias, lives near the epicenter and did not reach Downtown until the afternoon. The Tarzana condominium of Assistant Supt. of School Operations Dan Isaacs was severely damaged. He stayed off the job most of the week.
Within hours of the quake a core of administrators showed up at the central offices. They roamed the hallways looking for a room with power and phones, first setting up shop in school police offices, moving to another office down the hall and finally settling into a bungalow adjacent to headquarters.
Without formal emergency procedures at work, they reacted on instinct.
“It was catch as catch can,” said Leticia Quezada, president of the Board of Education, who was monitoring activity by phone.
By default, Douglas Brown--a career administrator with expertise in data processing, purchasing and facilities management--found himself superintendent. But Brown seemed a reluctant leader.
“It was very clear that there was a hesitation for anyone to say ‘I’m in charge,’ ” Quezada said. “When I spoke with Doug I said: ‘You are in charge.’ ”
The first major public announcement that Brown issued, after receiving the order from Thompson over the phone, was to close all schools to students on Tuesday. All 60,000 district employees were asked to report to work if they were able.
The decision to call in the staff touched off a firestorm of controversy among employee unions, which called it an insensitive and dangerous request. The homes of many were in shambles. The mayor was urging residents to stay home and off roads. Schools were not going to open to students any time soon.
Bernstein, the UTLA president, instructed the 28,000 teachers to stay home because in her opinion “it is unsafe to go to school.”
This in turn angered the principals union and the other non-teaching unions because their members were reporting to potentially dangerous schools.
In retrospect, union leaders on both sides said the lack of a disaster procedure clearly understood by principals, teachers and other staff added to the confusion.
“We were the ones telling people to remain calm,” said Brent, head of the administrators’ union, “yet we didn’t have a lot of information about what was happening.
“When you are not in the loop and you don’t see what they are using as a blueprint, you start wondering if there was a blueprint,” he said.
Bernstein said district officials missed the opportunity to use the finely tuned phone trees and voice mail systems that the unions have in place that could have reached most teachers and principals with instructions.
At San Fernando Valley schools, principals and plant managers made the first assessments of safety and damage. But without electricity or phones, many had no way to call for structural inspectors or report damage to their superiors.
Some drove home to call district officials or searched the Valley for a working pay phone. The lucky ones had car phones. Others waited until district messengers delivered cellular phones to the schools.
“The first couple of days I felt like I was on my own,” said Suzanne Hofmann, principal of Topeka Drive Elementary School in Northridge.
Every school was equipped with a low-frequency two-way radio to use for emergency communication with nearby campuses. But they proved useless in this situation, said principals who found that the radios’ range was too limited.
Principals had little to tell concerned parents except what they read in newspapers or heard on the radio.
“We were operating day to day and telling people to listen to the media, which would let us all know what was happening,” said Donald Watson, principal of Kittridge Elementary School. “It seemed to take a long time for the district to get a clear picture as to the specific damages in schools.”
Debra Hetrick, the district’s emergency management coordinator, said this quake exposed flaws in the communication system. “Luckily the kids weren’t in school because we would not have been able to know what was going on,” she said. “People would have needed assistance and we would not have been able to respond.”
Hetrick said her office had been urging district officials to make improvements. “People are in denial,” she said. “I keep typing those bulletins and you know how many people read them? Who has the time?”
At the Downtown headquarters, decisions were made after impromptu meetings of Thompson and his top deputies. No minutes or logs were kept.
The written emergency operations plan, approved by the school board in 1991, was not used because it “assumes a major movement on the San Andreas Fault,” Thompson said. “We are talking (in that case) about 50-60% of the district being severely damaged at which point you go into a true crisis catastrophe kind of an operation.
“What we had in this situation was primarily major damage, but isolated major damage,” Thompson said. “So we took a different approach.”
School board President Quezada said the board will review with Thompson why a high-profile emergency command center “never got implemented.”
Thompson said his first goal after the quake was getting schools in shape to open. Communication was secondary, he said, and a straightforward task.
“So what’s to communicate? There is no school,” he said. “And why? Because we were doing assessments of the sites. We did what we had to do. We told the world we closed schools.”
But parents were clearly seeking more information. The district told the public to call a hot line for the latest updates, but the line could only handle five English messages and one Spanish message at a time. For a district of 640,000 students, the equipment was not much more sophisticated than a home answering system. It could only handle 6,000 calls a day.
“Get through?” laughed Diana Dixon Davis of Northridge, a parent of a student at Patrick Henry Middle School. “I only tried the first couple of days and then I stopped calling Downtown.”
Warren Christopher, a technology consultant for AT&T;, said district officials contacted him Friday, Jan. 21, to install a better system. By Sunday the capacity of the system had been increased to 18,000 calls a day.
It was not until nine days after the quake, on the day after most schools reopened, that a major new phone system was installed. Even then, the 100,000-call-a-day system was running at capacity. “It topped out the lines,” Christopher said.
Bonnie Goldstein, whose son attends Kennedy High School in Granada Hills, said parents were still being ignored in the second week after the quake. “The big buzzword now is parent involvement, parent empowerment, but we weren’t contacted,” she said. “Recordings are not adequate after time has passed. I would have loved to talk to a person.”
On Jan. 26 the district opened its first bank of telephone lines for students and parents to talk to a counselor or hear updates from a person.
While commercial television stations went round the clock with news coverage of the quake, the district’s own KLCS-TV, Channel 58, a UHF station that reaches throughout the region with an annual budget of $3.1 million, stayed off the air on Jan 17.
The station had been scheduled to be dark for budgetary reasons. After the quake, no one gave the order for the station to mobilize for the emergency.
“I don’t know that we are in any formal loop,” said Sabrina Thomas, director of programming. “I don’t know of any (disaster) plan that includes KLCS . . . nothing per se kicks in when a crisis happens.
“The superintendent could have come down here and gone on the air with whatever information,” Thomas said. “That’s the role of communication in a crisis. . . . We can reach every single child in the district in a moment.”
The station broadcast its regular programming--educational and children’s shows like “Barney and Friends"--on Tuesday morning. That afternoon, a written announcement began to crawl across the screen telling viewers that schools were closed.
At 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, the first quake-related program was aired--a meeting with Thompson and union leaders to clarify conflicting information about back-to-work orders.
On the Friday after the quake, a ruckus erupted between the school district’s major union and the Board of Education. It led Thompson and the board to refuse to attend a meeting called by Mayor Richard Riordan to discuss disaster aid for schools with FEMA Administrator James Lee Witt.
The incident was rooted in long-running strife between the teachers union and other district unions who resent the high-profile status of UTLA and demand equal attention from the school board.
The City Hall meeting was requested by UTLA President Bernstein. “One thing we do well in this union is understand the role of politics,” Bernstein said, explaining why she asked for the meeting.
But earlier that day, Brent and other employee union leaders had made angry speeches complaining that their unions were shut out of decision-making in the aftermath of the quake.
Quezada and other board members felt it would further enrage the unions if she and Thompson attended the mayor’s meeting if the only union official present was Bernstein. Thompson called the mayor and excused himself.
“I explained to (Riordan) that a meeting that was going to discuss the district and the status of the quake should of necessity include all major bargaining units, not just the teachers union,” Thompson said. “He said he understood.”
Bernstein alone wound up briefing the top federal disaster official about the status of schools. “I think the board is embarrassed,” she said later.
School officials were able to meet on their own later with Witt and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, but their shunning of the mayor’s meeting raised some eyebrows.
“It’s OK to play those games vis-a-vis one another, but it makes you look so bad to people who want to help,” said one Los Angeles leader who watches the district’s performance closely and who felt the episode demonstrated poor leadership. “I thought it was really pathetic.”
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