Board acts to limit new schools near freeways

Times Staff Writer

Making broad pronouncements about the need to protect the health of children in their care, the Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday restricted the district’s ability to build schools near freeways and other sources of air pollution.

After a string of public speakers supporting the measure and impassioned debate, the board approved a resolution calling for the school system to study airborne pollutants up to half a mile from a potential site, rather than the current quarter mile requirement. It also seeks air quality health-risk assessments for all schools, including charter schools, although officials said it is unclear whether they could force the independently run but publicly-funded schools to do so.

“Basically I’m trying to push the envelope as far as we can,” said board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who co-wrote the resolution with board member Julie Korenstein.


Flores Aguilar took on the issue after The Times reported in September that the district continued to build schools close to freeways, despite a state law discouraging it and recent studies indicating that children living near them showed signs of increased respiratory harm. About 60,000 Los Angeles Unified School District students attend campuses within 500 feet of a freeway.

The board also gave the superintendent a month to produce a list of schools where children are at the highest risk from air pollution and, by late March, to come up with a plan to reduce that exposure.

The board action does not change state law, which allows schools within 500 feet of major roadways despite the risks if the board finds the pollution “unavoidable” and overrides it.

However, Flores Aguilar said her resolution fixes a glitch in state law that did not require school systems to consider the effect of ultra-fine particles -- which researchers now believe carry the most noxious pollutants. Those particles are too small to be filtered by heating and air-conditioning systems.

Board member Tamar Galatzan, the lone dissenting vote, said that with budget cuts looming she couldn’t support the proposal without a full financial analysis.

Officials said the district expects to lose $460 million in state funds next year.

But her fiscal argument lost to what board members said they felt was a moral imperative.

One after another, they said that they or a family member suffered from asthma.

“I so understand what it means to not be able to breathe,” Flores Aguilar said, tearing up. She was born with a severely narrow trachea, requiring time in oxygen tents as a child.

Marguerite LaMotte said her family gave its life savings -- including LaMotte’s college fund -- to a charlatan who promised to cure her mother’s severe asthma. He failed. “I can do nothing but support it,” she said.

District officials said it will cost practically nothing to extend the distance of air quality analysis. The costs of retooling existing schools to limit exposure are unknown. But the resolution does not require the work to be done, and Flores Aguilar said there may be grants available.

Supt. David L. Brewer, also an asthma sufferer, hinted that the funds could come from future bond measures if the community has the “political will” to protect children’s health.