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Legislature Should Provide Funds to Repair Schools : Move to smaller classes has delayed maintenance

School doors have swung open again across Orange County, displaying classrooms filled with books, pencils and, sometimes, duct tape.

The tape is used to repair ripped carpeting in many classrooms, illustrating a problem that threatens to become worse as schools scramble for money: deferred maintenance.

At the state Legislature’s next session, Orange County representatives should push their colleagues in Sacramento to make funds for school repairs a priority. The county’s Assembly and Senate members have firsthand knowledge of the benefits of a well-educated populace and can use Orange County as an example for other legislators that good schools are essential to a county’s well-being.

Unfortunately, the state has earmarked only $135 million this year for deferred maintenance, while the estimated price tag to fix deteriorating schools across California is an estimated $2.6 billion. Still, the $135 million is $50 million more than last year’s allocation and the first increase in 11 years.

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As any homeowner knows, deferred problems do not go away; they get worse. When a school’s roof develops a hole, the rain can pour in and wreck the paint, the rugs and the computers. It can also become a threat to safety.

The move to smaller class sizes--20 children or less in the early grades--has been universally applauded but it has complicated the maintenance issue. Schools have scrambled to find the extra space, in many cases using portable classrooms.

The portables, designed for temporary use, are more expensive to maintain than permanent facilities. Roofs are more likely to leak and paint to peel. Air conditioning systems, when they exist at all, are less efficient.

When school started a week and a half ago in Huntington Beach, 23 portable classrooms in the Ocean View School District were without air conditioners, fans, lights or anything else that needed electricity. That is unacceptable. With the temperature outside well into the 90s, conditions inside were not very conducive to learning.

The district and teachers scrambled to teach as best they could, for which they deserve credit. The strain across the state of trying to meet the mandate for smaller classes should have been foreseen in Sacramento. As Ocean View learned, the demand for portable classrooms has been so great there’s a waiting list.

The smaller classes and demand for space has also led to reopening seven schools and opening four new ones in the county this year.

Two of the new schools are in the Capistrano Unified district. The elementary school, the first public school in Coto de Caza, was designed for 722 students. But growth in south Orange County has been so great, Wagon Wheel School opened with about 850 students. The new school already has six portable classrooms.

The seven schools that reopened across the county had been shuttered in the 1970s and 1980s as the baby boom gave way to the baby bust.

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Getting parents involved in making schools shipshape after years of disuse has been beneficial. Parental involvement helps teachers and staff; it also demonstrates to children that their parents believe education is important.

Parents have also helped ease some of the problems of deferred maintenance in a number of school districts around Orange County, scrubbing walls and wielding paint brushes to make the classrooms brighter and more welcoming. But Sacramento has to understand that’s not a solution, just a temporary fix.

The answer is to appropriate money to fix buildings that are 20 or 30 years old and showing their age. That would be much preferable to waiting while conditions deteriorate even more.


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