"Business executives could never work in these conditions," says John Perez, an angry parent in North Hollywood. "They would never deal with the secondhand equipment or mismatched furniture in dirty, dank rooms with institutionalized gray or green paint peeling off the walls. They could never go into buildings like that."
Perez takes a deep breath and adds, "But they send their children there and expect them to learn."
Perez has two girls being educated in Valley schools that look like warehouses. One is Byrd Junior High School in Sun Valley; the other, Strathern Street Elementary School in North Hollywood.
It's basic psychology that a better-looking environment allows for better learning. A freshly painted classroom makes students feel welcome and could improve study habits and concentration.
But aesthetics aren't a high priority when there's hardly enough money to pay teachers and buy books. Most schools in the Valley built in the 1950s have never been painted. It's possible that the grandchildren of today's youth could still be looking at the same paint peeling off the same walls.
Ironically, as The Times reported awhile back, it's taken an earthquake to make a difference at some schools. Because of the damage, they'll get some unscheduled maintenance. That won't help the ones that look shabby because of mere neglect.
"It's a crime to see the condition that most of the schools are in," says Perez, who is also the secondary vice president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. "And we're going to have to depend more and more on parents to help keep the schools beautiful."
Unlike employees in some unions, L.A. teachers have no clause requiring an attractive workplace, says UTLA official Catherine Carey. "We do have a section that says the workplace must be safe, but it doesn't have to look nice," Carey says. "Yet it's well-documented that a nice work environment makes you feel better about going to work."
Some parents know this. At schools like Canoga Park High School, LeMay Street Elementary School in Van Nuys and Castlebay Lane Elementary School in Northridge, parent organizations have raised money for painting classrooms that are in shoddy shape. Now parent groups all over the Valley are waiting to provide the muscle work after the earthquake.
"We have a very active school beautification committee," says Castlebay Lane Elementary Principal Natalie Messinger, who had the heating and air conditioning fixed in her school after the quake. "They're waiting to find out how many cans of paint we're going to get. The labor is there. The parents will help."
Officially, the maintenance schedule for repainting classrooms is every five to seven years, says Yugo Fukushima, Los Angeles Unified School District assistant operations manager. But he says the reality is that it takes up to 20 years. Margaret Scholl, director of maintenance and operations for all Los Angeles schools, admits: "It would really be more like 30 years; painting is just not very high up on the priority scale.
"It's amazing to me that some of the schools look as well as they do in the Valley, and I know that's due to some volunteer efforts," Scholl says. "The bottom line really is that New Jersey spends about $15,000 a student and we spend $4,500. We're at the bottom on what we spend in education, and maintenance is at the bottom of that."
Perez recalls that a fundamental reason for his family moving across the country from New York when he was a child was to take advantage of the high-caliber California school system. Today, he knows his children are getting an education that's inferior to what he received--and they're trying to learn in a pitiful environment.
"I know there's more important things to work on, like lowering the classroom size per teacher, for instance," says Perez, "but the bottom line is that if we let our schools deteriorate in how they look, we also will see education deteriorate even more."
"The district maintenance people are doing their best, I know, but it does get frustrating," says Messinger, the Castlebay principal. "I'll give you an example. We had a new product tried on our playground and driveway when the school was built, but it melts in the summer and firetrucks can't go on it. We were supposedly on a high priority to change it. It's been 22 years."