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Ailing Valley Schools Look to Bond Vote

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dorothy Madson was in the middle of a discussion with her English class at San Fernando High School recently when a student collapsed in an epileptic seizure.

Instinctively, she grabbed the classroom phone that connects to the main office. It didn’t work. It hasn’t for years. Instead, she had to send a student racing to the nurse’s office.

Fortunately, the nurse’s office was near and help arrived within minutes. But the incident annoyed administrators who have had to tolerate the inoperable intercom system because the district can’t afford a new one.

“You’re talking about some problems here that are real safety concerns, namely our antiquated [intercom] system and the poor lighting throughout the campus,” said Barbara Garry, San Fernando High assistant principal.

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“These have been things that have been deteriorating for years and each day it just gets worse.”

San Fernando High is but one of 899 steadily decaying schools, occupational centers and other buildings in the Los Angeles Unified School District with problems that range from nuisances such as chipping paint to the potential dangers of inoperable intercoms. The problems are physical ailments that add up to $2.4 billion in repairs the school district says it has been unable to cover in its $5-billion annual budget.

So, for the second time in five months, the district is asking voters April 8 to approve a $2.4-billion bond measure aimed at repairing and modernizing its schools. The measure failed in November to garner the necessary two-thirds vote, receiving 65.5% of the ballots cast, just 1.16% shy of passage.

If Proposition BB passes this time, 223 public schools in the San Fernando Valley will become the beneficiaries of roughly $800 million. The district would mete out the money on the basis of urgency--a sagging roof in need of replacement, for instance--and also on the basis of how long a particular school’s request has been waiting.

Most of the district’s schools were built between 1940 and 1970 and are in a fast spiral of disrepair. The last time the district won voter approval for a bond was in 1971, shortly after the Sylmar earthquake.

Today, leaking roofs, cracks in playgrounds, inadequate classroom space, lack of air-conditioning and antiquated electrical systems are among the most common problems, many of which have been exacerbated by harsh weather and subsequent earthquakes.

At Apperson Street Elementary School in Sunland, officials have become adept at catching rainwater in buckets. The school’s original roof from 1949 has been patched but never replaced and has become weaker from the heavy rains in December and January.

“We basically don’t know where the leaks are going to happen,” Principal Ann Carnes said. “I’ve been here four years and we’ve gone through this every year there’s a heavy rainstorm. . . . We basically just live with it.”

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Library books and textbooks at Apperson were destroyed in a January rainstorm when a section of the water-damaged ceiling gave way in a classroom, dropping at least two buckets’ worth of water on a teacher’s desk.

“It was like musical chairs in some of the classes because the kids were searching for seats that were dry,” said Rhonda Bradley, whose son attends Apperson. “My son has complained about having to walk through puddles in some of his classes.”

Then there’s the heat. It is especially bad in the Valley, where temperatures are typically 10 degrees higher than the rest of the city. Air-conditioning is sorely needed and for many schools has been unattainable.

“The lack of air-conditioning really has an effect on student achievement,” said Shelly Rivlin Hollis, principal of Calvert Street Elementary School in Woodland Hills. “Students simply can’t concentrate on their work and are often fatigued in class.”

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“You can walk into a classroom in January and find the children sitting up and working,” Hollis explained. “You walk in a classroom in September when they should be excited because it’s the start of the year and they’re all lying on their desks fanning themselves.”

Even with three fans blowing in a classroom, temperatures have remained in the 90s during the warmer months, Hollis said. Students have coped by sipping ice water from plastic bottles they bring to class on such days. But the oppressively hot rooms prompted Hollis this academic year to discontinue summer school at Calvert until air conditioners are installed. The school’s booster club has been holding bake sales and other fund-raisers for the past year to raise the $60,000 necessary to purchase a central air-conditioning system for the school. To date they have collected $11,000.

When it opened in 1956, Calvert was a state-of-the-art school mentioned in a 15-minute Walt Disney film, “America the Beautiful,” which was played in the amusement park’s Circlevision Theater for visitors. In 1997, Calvert is using the same one-way intercom system, and scant electrical outlets that were installed before the era of computers and televisions in classrooms.

Wiring problems are even worse at Apperson Street Elementary, which still uses the glass fuses it had when it opened in 1949 rather than circuit-breaker boxes.

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“With technology and all the bells and whistles and computers and TVs, it’s tough to hook them up in the classrooms because the electrical circuitry can’t handle it,” said parent Alan McNary, whose son is a fourth-grader at the school.

Parents and teachers have resorted to running a heavy extension cord from a classroom that operates on a different circuit to the auditorium for special events such as Parents’ Night to avoid blowing a fuse.

Tours of several campuses made it clear that their requests are not frivolous. At El Oro Way Elementary School in Granada Hills, four wooden beams support a section of the roof that sags like a worn mattress. Weeds sprout from tar used to patch cracks in sidewalks and playing fields.

At San Fernando High, weak fluorescent lights hanging from 20-foot-high ceilings lend hallways a dreary air. Water stains snake down classroom walls, while entire strips of paint are peeling. Hidden from view is asbestos and old plumbing. Over time, it has affected morale.

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“Students are like, ‘Look at this, I’m supposed to learn in this,’ ” senior Andrea Sandoval said. “And they feel like if the state or local government or whoever hasn’t cared enough to fix the school, then why should they care about their education?”

Sandoval, one of three student body presidents, has been encouraging classmates who turn 18 to register to vote. The students said they are worried about future classes if work isn’t done now.

“Most of us live in the community and we’re bringing in a lot of our younger brothers and sisters to the school,” senior Carina Armenta said. “It’s sad to think that if Prop. BB doesn’t go through, that they may be dealing with the same stuff.”


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