Saturday, March 27, 2010


By Howard Blume | LA Times LA Now blog

March 26, 2010 |  5:01 pm -- The Los Angeles Unified School District has withdrawn a claim that sought millions of dollars in new state funding to keep student bathrooms clean, unlocked and in working order.

The district had sought $22 million -- and about $9 million annually -- in the wake of a 2003 state law requiring that restrooms “shall at all times be maintained and cleaned regularly, fully operational and stocked at all times with toilet paper, soap, and paper towels or functional hand dryers.”

The law also required that bathrooms be unlocked when students need them except when closed for specific repairs.

About a year later, L.A. Unified submitted a claim to the California Commission on State Mandates, which has the authority to decide that the state must foot the bill when a new law creates new costs for a public agency.

The nation’s second-largest school system said that in 2004 it had spent $13.7 million for repairs and upgrades and nearly $9 million for additional workers. The district’s new standard has been to “routinely clean bathrooms as often as every night and spot clean and restock them twice a day,” said district spokeswoman Shannon Haber.

But the commission's staff was unmoved, noting, among other things, that since 1948, state law has required “sufficient patent flush water closets.” The new law merely clarified “sufficient” and established a new complaint and response process, according to the staff analysis.

The law itself resulted from a broadcast news investigation of poorly maintained bathrooms at more than 50 schools. Bathroom issues have periodically plagued L.A. Unified. In 2000, interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines pledged a “books and bathrooms” initiative. (The books portion referred to textbook shortages.)

The subsequent furor, in 2003, prompted calls for outside inspections and forced Cortines’ successor, Roy Romer, to pledge more resources. And that’s when the district also filed its claim.

“We were trying to take advantage of every opportunity to get projects funded,” said Mark Hovatter, director of maintenance and operations. “We saw this as a chance to get state money because we were doing something above and beyond what we were what doing before. We never had a 100% expectation of being successful. It was more like applying for a grant.”

By 2010, the expectation had dropped to near 0%, so officials gave up rather than wait for the seven-member commission to reject their claim. The commission was scheduled to act Friday; L.A. Unified withdrew the claim Thursday.

The district’s current challenges include preserving efforts to keep bathrooms clean during an ongoing budget crisis. Overall custodial services are cut 20% in the tentative budget of Supt. Cortines, who returned to the top job in late 2008.

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