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Building Involvement

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Standing on her tiptoes, Karolyn Kiisel aimed her camera through the playground fence, pressed the shutter button and hoped for the best.

She was trying to snap a picture of her daughter’s fifth-grade class, which was lined up in Mount Washington Elementary School’s kindergarten play yard.

Kiisel was jockeying for viewing space outside the fence with dozens of parents who were unable to squeeze into the small outdoor area where the school’s annual holiday pageant was being held.

“I was thinking how it would give more importance to their little show if they had a stage,” she said. “A place for a few props, room for an audience. Just think of how it would add to the kids’ sense of self-esteem.”

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Although the 85-year-old campus is among the oldest in Los Angeles, it has no auditorium or multipurpose room that children can use for class plays, school assemblies--or as a dry place (other than their classrooms) to eat lunch on rainy days.

Tired of waiting for the Los Angeles Unified School District to do it, parents of the campus’ 360 pupils have decided to design and build a multipurpose room themselves.

Parents, who have spent four years and 80 meetings debating the size and shape of the room and researching ways to pay for its construction, say they have agreed on a design plan and settled on a strategy they hope will finance it.

Their goal is to build a 6,000-square-foot auditorium that boasts a stage and fold-down tables and benches, plus a 2,000-foot mezzanine that has space for a library/computer room/literacy center.

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They are seeking to cover the estimated $1.2-million cost by pairing a hoped-for $600,000 school district allocation with matching funds from the state or from private foundations.

The district has yet to approve their proposal--or allocate a single dollar to it.

But spirits are so high that some in the hilltop community 4 miles northeast of downtown are already talking about groundbreaking ceremonies next year--and having the multipurpose room ready by the time the school’s holiday pageant rolls around in 2000.

Parents will meet Jan. 17 with school officials to ask for approval to draw up construction plans and begin serious fund-raising. So far they’ve come up with $30,000 in seed money through dinner-dances and yard sales.

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The group, which calls itself the Friends of Mount Washington School, originally proposed a far more lavish, 17,000-square-foot combination auditorium and classroom project two years ago. That proposal was drawn up for free by parent Elizabeth Herron, an architect, and with a professionally built scale model lined up without cost by Dan Garcia, a Mount Washington resident who serves on the city Airport Commission.

But the concept was criticized as too massive by several homeowners who live on Danforth Drive next to the school and by some parents, said Robert Leventer, a Superior Court commissioner and one of the directors of the Friends.

“Some didn’t want it built next to them; others didn’t want something built that would cause the school enrollment to grow,” Leventer said. “They didn’t want extra classrooms. They wanted the small, community-school look.”

Besides omitting new classrooms, the new design calls for the building to be in a corner of the playground across the campus from Danforth.

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Mount Washington parents acknowledge that they are blazing new ground in Los Angeles with a do-it-yourself construction project on a public school campus.

“The school district said right upfront that no parent-based group had tried to do much more than put in air conditioning in a school,” said Warren Christensen, a book publisher who is volunteer project manager for the Friends. “The idea of a bricks-and-mortar project for a public school was unheard of.”

Christensen said his group initially toyed with the concept of conducting a special election in the 3,000-home Mount Washington area to ask homeowners to assess themselves to pay for the auditorium--to be dubbed the Jack Smith Multipurpose Building in honor of the late Times columnist, a Mount Washington resident for more than 40 years.

They scrapped that idea after learning that the school district itself was planning a huge citywide bond election to raise more than $2 billion for repair and new construction. “We said we can’t tax ourselves twice,” Christensen recalled.

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The passage in April of Proposition BB created a $14-million districtwide fund for community-requested campus projects. Mount Washington residents hope to tap it for the $600,000 they are seeking from the district, Christensen added.

But the residents may be prematurely counting on that cash, said school board member David Tokofsky, who represents the Mount Washington area.

“I don’t see any one project getting $600,000,” he said. Although the school badly needs a multipurpose room, a more reasonable expectation from the district might be $200,000, he said.

Erik Nasarenko, a spokesman for the school system’s facilities division, said it may be difficult for Mount Washington residents to win a matching allocation of any kind from the state. That’s because their school’s low enrollment places it outside normal state funding eligibility criteria, he said.

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But Mount Washington residents remain hopeful. They point out that one of their neighbors--and one of their school’s parents--is state Assembly Majority Leader Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles).

Villaraigosa was among those attending the Christmas pageant in the kindergarten play yard. He had to stand in the back while he watched his son’s third-grade class perform.

“This is a very unique effort, the way parents came together and drew up plans and built models. You don’t see that at many schools,” Villaraigosa said as the third-graders took their place on the portable riser. “This proposal merits some exploration.”

Sixth-grade teacher Gerry Kass agreed.

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“We’ve had music groups that didn’t want to come perform here because they didn’t want their instruments baking outside in the sun,” Kass said. “Dance groups have refused to come, saying they don’t want to hurt their legs dancing here on the concrete.”

Principal Linda Pacheco said students are relegated to staging their own plays and pageants in the school hallway during rainy weather.

If the parents succeed, Pacheco said, “it will be a happy day for Mount Washington.”


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