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Porter Ranch leak is over, but when will schools move back?

Mike Szymanski | February 18, 2016

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Project manager Mike Romero shows Michelle King the new school site at Northridge Middle School.

LA Unified Superintendent Michelle King issued a statement commending Thursday’s announcement that the Porter Ranch well that has been leaking methane gas since October has been sealed, but there was no clear indication of when the two relocated schools and their 1,850 students would return home.

Two schools were moved to temporary locations over the winter break out of an abundance of caution and are sharing spaces at other schools miles away from the leak in the Southern California Gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon.

Now that the leak is stopped, parents want to get back to normal as quickly as possible and have the campuses move back.

King’s statement says, “We are pleased that Southern California Gas has successfully sealed the leak. This will allow us to start planning for the return of students and staff to their home campuses at Porter Ranch Community School and Castlebay Lane Charter. Our students continue to attend classes in their satellite campuses, where we have created a positive environment to support the teaching and learning experience. The safety and well-being of our students remains our top priority.”

When King toured the two schools’ new sites in early January, she said the intention was to allow the students to finish out the year at the temporary sites. Keeping the students at the new sites until June was deemed the least disruptive for the elementary and middle school students.

“I’m not surprised by the district’s lack of clarity about this, but we just want our children back in our home school as soon as possible, that’s all,” said Sean O’Rourke, whose wife is a teacher at Castlebay Lane Charter and whose son attends Porter Ranch Community School. “Our lives have been disrupted enough by this.”

O’Rourke, a community leader on the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council, did not join the relocating exodus, which totaled 6,400 households. But that means that his son now takes a bus about 25 minutes each way to get to his new school site.


Projects moved from Porter Ranch to new site.

The district spent an estimated $5 million adding 36 temporary mobile classrooms to the grounds of Northridge Middle School to accommodate the 1,100 kindergarten through 8th grade students from Porter Ranch Community School, which is about eight miles from their former school site. About 750 K-5th grade students from Castlebay Lane Charter are sharing facilities at Sunny Brae Elementary School about 7.5 miles from their previous school site. Costs also include laying down concrete and asphalt, extending water, sewer and electrical lines and paying for additional overtime for work done over the holidays. LAUSD is expected to charge the entire cost of the move, and the move back, to SoCal Gas.

“When this happened we didn’t want the schools to move because we didn’t move,” O’Rourke said. “But now I’m passionate about moving the schools back. It’s really just moving desks and books to where they were.”

Local District Northwest Superintendent Vivian Ekchian emphasized making the move a learning experience for all the students. She said it was important that the students had the same desks that they sat in at the former location. All the teachers’ materials and projects were moved over as well.

But it’s not the same. The fifth grade classroom for O’Rourke’s wife is half the size of her original space. “There’s no full-time lab, no real library, the activities and sports after school are all gone. And, for the students who are graduating from the schools, it would be nicer if they could be at their home location again.”

The schools have been moved for five weeks, less than a full semester term. The district spokespeople declined to clarify King’s statement nor say if the decision to move back would be made by the school principals, with input from the parents, or be made by the superintendent. King previously said that the children’s well-being comes first and for the situation to be the least disruptive for their learning.

“Certainly, the least disruptive would be getting things back to normal as quickly as possible,” O’Rourke said.

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