Monday, October 31, 2011

LAUSD's $30 MILLION MISTAKE: Schools must make costly repairs to meet standards for disabled

By Susan Abram, Daily News Staff Writer |

^LAUSD Facilities Accessibility Compliance Unit representative Ken Arrington measures a grab bar that is at the wrong height in the boys bathroom at Columbus Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

10/30/2011 - At Columbus Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys, the grab bars in the boys' restroom are slightly off, the stair handrails are half an inch too high, and the signs leading from the playground to the library aren't hung at the correct eye level.

For most people, the fixtures pose no problem. But for students in wheelchairs or parents who need help walking, a steep ramp or a high handrail can make the difference between moving around campus and getting stuck.

Yet, despite Los Angeles Unified School District spending some $20 billion on its new construction program, hundreds of repairs are needed at the 80 new schools built over the past decade - at an additional cost of $30 million - because of failure to meet federal handicapped accessibility standards.

<< LAUSD Facilities Accessibility Compliance Unit representative Geoffrey Straniere points out piping that should have protective sleeves in a boys bathroom at Columbus Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

"It was a little disappointing that brand new schools were not built to (federal) compliance," said Jay Alleman, administrative coordinator and chief analyst for the Office of the Independent Monitor, which oversees the district's special education programs.

"It's more than just student accessibility. It's about public accessibility."

The LAUSD has been under federal scrutiny since 1996 to improve special education services. The district is under a modified consent decree for its failure to adhere to all federal special education mandates - including ensuring that schools are accessible to all.

Work on elementary, middle and high schools - 17 of them in the San Fernando Valley - will include everything from adjusting the height of ramps, hand rails and toilets, to restriping parking spaces, said Neil Gamble, the district's director of maintenance and operations.

"It's not new ramps or large systems missing," Gamble said.

The improvements will be done on buildings constructed before 2009, when the district's construction practices were more liberal, but still within industry standard.

District construction supervisors signed off on the buildings as compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but an inspector with the Office of the Independent Monitor found that some of the rails, signs and other hardware were off by a half an inch or more. Because the district had signed off on the work, the contractors could not be held accountable.

"When you (have fixtures) for decorations it's not a big deal," said LAUSD board member Bennett Kayser, who has early stage Parkinson's disease.

"But for someone who is used to reaching out to grab a railing from a wheelchair, it makes a difference."

Kayser said proper fixture adjustments are not just about meeting ADA compliance; they are a quality of life issue.

Still, he regrets that so much money will be spent on repairs.

"That's $30 million that could have gone to the classrooms," he said.

●●smf:  This is not good, it is $30 million that could’ve+should’ve been better spent and taxpayers should be grumpy.

However School Construction Bond Funds specifically earmarked for special needs access compliance are being spent for these repairs – not General Fund “classroom dollars”.  The money could not have “gone to classrooms”.

Schools where repairs are needed include Northridge Academy High School, Panorama City Elementary School, Rosa Parks Learning Center and Vista Middle School, among others.

Big projects include fixing accessibility into football fields, locker rooms, or bathrooms, Alleman said.

Repairs on the schools are expected to begin early next year, Gamble said. The $30 million for the project is expected to come from bond program funds associated with the original school construction money, Gamble said.

Alleman blames a breakdown among the district's architects, the California Division of the State

LAUSD Facilities Accessibility Compliance Unit representative Ken Arrington shows that a urinal is at the improper height at Columbus Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. At least 80 schools within the LAUSD do not come in compliance with the American Disabilty Act. About $30 million in repairs will be made to correct the problems. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer) >>

Architect, local inspectors and contractors. In some cases, ADA-compliant toilets or bars were purchased, but installed incorrectly.

But the oversight also could have occurred because of the size of the district and the rapid growth of new schools, said Barbara Thorpe, president of Disability Access Consultants, Inc., which assists business and public entities in complying with local, state and federal regulations. The firm has worked with the LAUSD.

"I work with hundreds of school districts in California and on average, Los Angeles appears to have the most noncompliant items," Thorpe said.

But the issue persists across the nation as well, and she applauded the district for going back and making the repairs.

<< LAUSD Facilities Accessibility Compliance Unit representatives Ken Arrington, left, and Geoffrey Straniere measure a hand rail this is at the wrong height during a tour of Columbus Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

"What I like is that they're stepping back and analyzing what went wrong and what they can do to make sure it doesn't happen again," she said. "Some districts will wait until they are sued until they make the changes. The ADA is not about building standards. It's about civil rights."

To be fair, Alleman said, LAUSD officials are now better trained in spotting what modifications are needed before they sign off on a building.

"You want to get it right before you (open the building)," Alleman said. "You can hold the architect accountable, and the contractors accountable before you close off the building."

He called the LAUSD progressive compared to other large school districts and even hospitals, hotels and other places frequented by the public.

"The district now, in my opinion, is far more ahead than any other large urban district in the United States," he said. "I think the future is very good, provided the district doesn't shoot itself in the foot."

Gamble said buildings constructed during the 2009-2010 school year are much closer to meeting the ADA requirements under the consent decree.

"The District's trend analysis of its 22 schools (2010 new K-12 schools) has demonstrated considerable improvements in the reduction of areas of non-compliance at new schools," according to a report by the Office of Independent Monitor, submitted by the LAUSD facilities department.

"As we've built more schools, we've learned what our compliance requirements should be," Gamble said. "We're staying engaged, to make sure we are hitting those exact dimensions. Our inspections have gotten better."

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