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Quake May Give Schools Chance to Upgrade

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before last month’s earthquake, students at Audubon Middle School in the Crenshaw area read 12-year-old textbooks beneath brown-stained ceilings. Classrooms at Rosemont Avenue Elementary had not been painted in decades. Lawrence Middle School students used computers so outmoded they are no longer made.

But with state and federal quake relief, these and other Los Angeles schools will be able to paint and replace aging materials. It is an unlikely benefit from the quake for the Los Angeles Unified School District, where nothing gets fixed or upgraded unless it poses a significant health or safety risk.

“It’s a sort of serendipity thing,” said Richard Morley, assistant principal at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet school in the Mid-City area. “It was unfortunate the quake happened but the equipment that will be replaced will be superior.”

Armed with promises of an infusion of cash from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state, hopeful school officials are surveying campuses to determine the necessary repairs and the supplies that need replacing.

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Everything from paper and crayons to re-plumbing bathrooms and replastering auditoriums will be included on their wish lists.

Federal rules require that damage be quake-related and not just the wear and tear from years of use. But the school district intends to argue for a liberal definition of quake damage, hoping to repair its aging infrastructure and make campuses safer for the next earthquake.

School officials will contend that it is fiscally sound to paint a whole classroom, not just the single wall that has cracks, and to replace aging equipment even if it is repairable.

“Is it really worth the money to repair gas lines and boilers when they are already 30 or 40 years old?” asked Margaret Scholl, director of the district’s maintenance and operations division. “If we have to paint a classroom wall, why do we have to match it with 40-year-old paint? These are serious questions we’re raising with FEMA.”

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Although FEMA policy requires the agency only to repair facilities to their pre-disaster conditions, FEMA officials say they will use good fiscal sense. If it is cheaper to replace an aging pipe rather than repair it, the agency would pay.

“Congress didn’t tell me to come here and be stingy,” said Leland Wilson, a FEMA special assistant. “I was told to come out here and pay the money to make earthquake repairs.”

Decisions will be made case by case, he said. “We wouldn’t want them to paint a pink wall in a classroom that has yellow walls,” Wilson said. “It’s just how far do you go in trying to make everything look nice again.”

FEMA officials said they are concerned whether a years-long inattention to maintenance led to more severe quake problems at schools. If inspectors find that schools were badly damaged because of a lack of routine maintenance, FEMA officials say they will issue a warning to the district that future earthquake damage will not be reimbursed.

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The school district, with a $3.9-billion annual budget, has a $600-million maintenance backlog on the books. During budget cuts over the last several years, the maintenance division was slashed by a third--leaving 500 fewer positions and ending routine maintenance to the schools.

The district stopped painting classrooms about six years ago and paints school exteriors only every 20 years. Maintenance workers make only those repairs needed to ensure the health and safety of employees and students. Leaky pipes are fixed, but playground cracks are rarely filled.

The district had 1,600 maintenance workers in 1986. Teams of electricians, plumbers and carpenters spent a week at each school every year, fixing broken lights, unclogging water fountains and repairing window blinds, among other things. The district had 14 trailers for tools and equipment that the workers parked on campuses.

The district also had specialists in furniture refinishing and repair of window blinds.

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Today, the district has sold the trailers. Schools rely on parents and community support to paint classrooms and spruce up campuses.

“We don’t have a preventive maintenance program; we have a breakdown maintenance program,” said Doug Brown, the district’s facilities director. “If ceiling tiles never present a safety or health hazard, they’re never going to be fixed or painted.”

But the quake represents an opportunity, several school officials acknowledged. Many schools finally will get modern texts that reflect the latest educational trends, including more literature and culturally sensitive narratives. Apple computers, most of which were donated, will be replaced with newer models that reflect technological advances.

Kennedy High School in Granada Hills, which reopened Feb. 22 in temporary classrooms, needs to replace $1.5 million in such materials. It is likely to get science equipment, such as scales, that now are computerized and new charts and maps that are more up-to-date--showing recent changes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

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Teachers across the city are eager to replace old books--some of which have gone through 15 generations of students--and other materials. They are dismayed that it took a disaster to spur the district into buying the latest materials and equipment.

“There’s a certain irony in that it takes an earthquake to improve the schools that have been so cash-starved for so long,” said Gregg Solkovits, a teacher and union representative at Monroe High School in North Hills, where thousands of books were lost to water damage. “We will be getting some needed repairs and needed materials as a result of a disaster. It’s a pity it took an earthquake.”

Nonetheless, teachers and school principals say even a fresh coat of paint or sparkling, white ceiling tiles will go a long way.

The deep cracks in the classroom walls at Audubon in the Crenshaw area are being repaired and textbooks have been ordered. “We have sparkling ceilings already,” said David Balok, assistant principal at Audubon.

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“If a new coat of paint or a new ceiling will improve people’s feelings, we’ll take it,” Balok said, adding that the school lost about $8,000 in teaching materials. “It’s too bad it has to take a disaster. . . but sometimes through a disaster comes benefits.”

The quake-damaged walls at Rosemont Elementary in the Echo Park area will be replastered and painted to repair the cracks.

“I can’t ever remember these walls being painted,” said Rosemont Principal Wayne Langham.

District officials estimate that about $5.5 million will be needed for new teaching materials, including computers and textbooks. Officials are figuring out the total damage estimate, but preliminary reports show that it could range from $300 million to $700 million.

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At this point, FEMA has agreed to reimburse the state for 90% of the earthquake damage and the state would be responsible for 10%. Gov. Pete Wilson has indicated that the school district might have to pay part of that amount.

District lobbyists say they are working on a variety of levels to ensure that the cash-strapped district does not have to pay out of its funds. About 10,000 classrooms suffered damage, ranging from fallen ceiling tiles to shattered windows and broken cabinets.

Board of Education members say the district needs to be completely reimbursed for repairs because of its tight budget. And, they say, the schools should reap some benefit.

“If there’s a lighter side to this disaster, it’s that the schools will be in better shape,” board member Julie Korenstein said. “But schools were in such bad shape before the earthquake that it will take a lot (of money).”

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The district also is attempting to get money from FEMA to replace lights, ceiling tiles and lunch shelters, among other things, at schools that did not suffer quake damage. By upgrading those campuses, future earthquake damage could be minimized, officials say.

“We’ve got to replace things across the district, like metal-frame doors that jammed and lights that came crashing down on desks and window screens that couldn’t be opened,” said Brown, the facilities director. “We need to bring our facilities up to code.”

To the administrators, teachers and students, the quake’s benefits will not go unnoticed.

“Some of the equipment we lost--when it was purchased--was state of the art,” said Morley, of the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. “But that was 10 or 15 years ago. Now we’ll have higher quality equipment that could improve education.”

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