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Board Vows to Help Brace Schools for Disaster : Safety: Officials vote to shoulder 25% of the cost of measures to cut classroom quake risks. They’re lobbying FEMA for the rest of the funds.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with thousands of classrooms that are potentially unsafe in earthquakes, the Los Angeles Board of Education pledged for the first time Monday to pay a portion of the costs to fortify schools throughout the city, if it can get the federal government to pay the rest.

The school board agreed unanimously to pay 25% of the costs to replace hazardous lighting, ceiling tiles and to secure large equipment, such as boilers, on all campuses. District officials said students and staff could have been injured, or perhaps killed, by falling lights and tiles if the pre-dawn Northridge earthquake had instead occurred during school hours.

Under a grant program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay 75% of the costs to reduce the risks in public buildings--as chosen by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services--from future earthquakes.

School-district officials are applying for $284 million from the agency, leaving $71 million as the school district’s share.

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But the school district must compete against other local government agencies applying for the funds, and district officials acknowledged that they probably will not be awarded the full amount.

“In all candor, I don’t expect we’ll get the whole $284 million, but we’re going to go after it,” said Dave Koch, the district’s business manager. “Realistically, there’s a lot of other people after the money as well. . . . We have the opportunity to improve classroom safety through this application.”

District officials said they are currently compiling a detailed survey at all 650 schools to determine what needs to be upgraded. Children’s centers, special education schools and elementary campuses will be given priority over middle and senior high schools.

“Younger children first,” Koch said. “We want to make schools as safe as possible.”

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The district and FEMA have been at odds over paying for earthquake repairs. As of last month, FEMA had approved giving the school district $90 million of the $150 million in school damages it has requested. The remainder is still under consideration. Meanwhile, dozens of schools still are in disrepair, left without gymnasiums and cafeterias.

The district believes the federal government should pay to replace ceiling tiles and hanging lights in all schools--even those that were not damaged by the January, 1994, temblor--because they still pose a risk to students and staff in future quakes.

Classrooms, auditoriums and gymnasiums, mostly in the San Fernando Valley, suffered the most damage when tiles and lights shook loose. At Reseda High, for example, the seats in the auditorium were covered with glass and shards of tiles after the Northridge earthquake.

If the school district obtains funds from the new grant program, it could take action before another disaster strikes, a move that has been encouraged by parent groups and other school activists.

The district has been reluctant to spend its own money on earthquake repairs, saying it could not afford to shoulder the costs alone.

But school board President Mark Slavkin said the board should not be limited by what FEMA will pay.

“Our obligation extends beyond FEMA,” Slavkin said.

Times staff writers Jose Cardenas and Emi Endo contributed to this story.

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