It did not take a "Closed" sign for me to think the place was off-limits. Surrounded by weeds, it looked a mess. Chipped paint. Broken chairs thrown in an adjacent junkyard. An old piano corroding in the parking lot. Everything I saw discouraged me from wanting to enter, even if I could. But as I turned the corner, I learned that not only was it possible to enter this place, it was mandatory for some. A Youth Services sign on the chain-link fence advertised an after-school and vacation playground. What had appeared to be a shut down campus was actually an open elementary school.
I was shocked. And in a short while, I learned another sad reality. Many of our Los Angeles Unified School District campuses are in decrepit condition, some so poorly maintained that they appear no better kept than one area elementary school that has been closed for 15 years. In fact, for a casual observer, it is often difficult to figure out which of our campuses are closed and which are open.
Each time I see school banners that read, "Thank You, Angelenos" for supporting Proposition BB, I know that my outrage at poor conditions should lessen. After all, the signs make it clear that money has been made available for renovations. At some campuses where playgrounds had not been paved for 25 years, children are finally playing on smooth black asphalt. But my outrage does not lessen. I cannot be fooled by a message that should read, "Too Little, Too late."
What service does a school provide to its youth when a construction worker is prompted to comment that an East Valley campus looks not just closed but abandoned, because the playground has been neglected for so long? What service does a school provide when running the 50-yard-dash is hazardous, if not impossible, because the track of a West Valley campus is choked with clumps of weeds? One principal excused the poor conditions, saying the heavy spring rains were at fault. Another explained that these are summer weeds.
I cannot accept the explanations. I know the real reason why so many schools are in such poor condition.
Until the passage of Proposition BB, the $2.4-billion Los Angeles school bond measure, LAUSD claimed it had inadequate funds to finance many necessary repairs. But Proposition BB is only a temporary solution to a larger and continuing problem of poor upkeep. After five years, the district says it will have allocated all of the money provided by the ballot measure. Where will that leave schools then? Campuses need to be regularly maintained or else they will look like the schools that I visited.
If the first priority of the LAUSD is its students, then it is the district's responsibility to better manage its money so that it can provide for school upkeep. It should not take a ballot measure and concerned citizens to make repairs possible.
When will the district learn that it needs to be accountable for the money it already has in its budget? Will it be after the cycle begins anew and repairs are again postponed until more outside money is found? Or will it be after more students lose hope in the education system because they cannot take pride in schools surrounded by weeds and broken equipment? Perhaps it is already too late for that.