Sunday, October 27, 2013


A popular beautification project planned for Berendo Middle School has one hurdle to clear — the L.A. school district's can't-do attitude.

By Steve Lopez, LA Times columnist |

Berendo Middle School

Children play on the blacktop at Berendo Middle School. A state grant would cover most of the cost of turning part of the playground into a green space, but the school district is balking at the required 20-year maintenance agreement. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times / October 25, 2013)

October 26, 2013, 12:00 p.m.  ::  The playground at Berendo Middle School, just west of downtown Los Angeles, looks more like the surface of an aircraft carrier than a playground.

There's virtually nothing but blacktop for the roughly 1,300 students to play on — acres and acres of sun-baked tar that heats up in summer and gets slippery when it rains.

And that's why there's so much enthusiasm for a beautification plan that aims to transform a corner of the campus into an oasis that would be enjoyed not just by students, but the whole community. There'd be tree-shaded benches, pathways, a native garden for habitat study.

Students like the plan. Teachers like it. Parents and neighbors like it.

The principal can't wait.

"I'd rather see something green. I'd rather see trees. I'd rather see anything but asphalt," said Principal Rosa Trujillo.

But there is one party that's not yet on board, so a project two years in the making could get scrapped.

That would be the Los Angeles Unified School District.

How could the district be opposed, especially when almost all the money would come from a state grant, and the project would be built by the nonprofit Hollywood Beautification Team?

Oh, LAUSD isn't opposed to the idea, facilities manager Mark Hovatter told me. But under terms of the state grant, the state requires a 20-year maintenance agreement and the district won't commit to taking care of a new and improved campus.

"It would be irresponsible for us to take on more and more maintenance requirements when we're struggling to meet the maintenance requirements we already have," Hovatter said.

I'm well aware of that struggle, having written earlier this year about the district's 35,442 unresolved calls for service and repairs on hundreds of campuses. And, no doubt, the layoff of more than 1,000 custodians, plant managers and other repair crews was devastating.

But isn't that all the more reason to take advantage of state grants and the willingness of citizens to contribute to school improvements?

"Unfortunately a lot of entities just build stuff and walk away. They don't hang around for 20 years," Hovatter said.

Fortunately, Principal Trujillo is nowhere near as defeatist as that.

"I'm a firm believer that it's going to happen," said Trujillo, who met with district officials and others on Friday to look for solutions that satisfy all parties.

Berendo isn't the only school hoping the district figures out a way to take advantage of grant money available under voter-approved Proposition 84, a 2006 law that set aside money for clean water, coastal protection, parks and natural education. Nonprofit coalitions representing five LAUSD schools have been designated to receive nearly $3 million already, with Berendo and five other schools preapproved for $2.5 million more.

Before getting cold feet, LAUSD supported the Prop. 84 improvement projects and approved $802,575 in matching funds. But then the district — which has supported other greening projects and edible gardens on campuses — suddenly reversed course.

"We're seen as the big bad bureaucrat stopping a project," Hovatter said, but he added the district can't proceed if the maintenance issue isn't worked out.

Oh, but it could easily be worked out if the district had the will to make it happen, said Sharyn Romano. She's the CEO of Hollywood/Los Angeles Beautification Team, which has worked with 140 public schools and would construct six of the Prop. 84 improvement projects in LAUSD, including the one at Berendo.

Grants always come with strings attached, Romano said, and the district has always found a way to work out the details in the interest of the thousands of students who benefit.

"They are the property owner," she said of LAUSD. "They have to sign the agreement" with the state.

"But they know they are not going to go it alone…. We have all these people driven by passion who want to support the schools…. If the district would work together with the community and the nonprofits, everyone would come together," she said.

Romano said she and other beautification partners are scheduled to meet Monday morning with LAUSD Supt. John Deasy. As you might have heard, he's apparently thinking of resigning, so he might be a little distracted.

Yeah, I know that working with leaders of the teachers union and the school board must be a headache for him, but come on. We need a superintendent who can manage the politics, clarify the agenda and serve students. Deasy should order his minions to either lead on campus improvements or get out of the way.

Romano said her crew would help with maintenance and Berendo neighbors are also prepared to join in. It's the kind of collaboration LAUSD should be applauding.

Berendo parents Manuela Belmarez and Miguel Gonzales told me families are so desperate for safe, open spaces, they sometimes climb the Berendo fence on weekends to use the basketball courts.

"It's really dangerous for kids at Normandie Park," said eighth-grade leadership representative Melissa Lopez, who wants to know why the district isn't embracing a campus upgrade.

Teresa Dahl, whose kids are at other LAUSD schools but who is volunteering on the Berendo project, said if the beautification happens, neighbors would have access to the campus until 6 p.m. on weekdays and possibly even on weekends at some point. Yes, that would mean resolving questions about supervision and liability.

But here's a chance to make dramatic improvements on campuses and build stronger connections between school and community. District officials should be telling us how they're going to make it happen instead of why they can't.

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