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Porter Ranch schools probably won’t move back until end of the school year

Mike Szymanski | March 15, 2016

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Principals Susan Lasken, Mary Melvin and Victoria Littlejohn.

The two schools with 1,850 students that were relocated due to a methane gas leak in Porter Ranch probably won’t be moved back to their locations before the end of the school year.

Although the district continues to weigh options about returning the students back to their schools, there are no plans to move the schools back over the spring break next week, according to district officials.

“I have no evidence to show that we should now be able to return to the schools safely,” said Local District Northwest Superintendent Vivian Ekchian. “There are no plans to move back over spring break.”

And, one of the principals of the two schools moved into a temporary home said that although some parents want to get everything back to normal as soon as possible, it may be disruptive to the children and their education.

Victoria Littlejohn, principal at Castlebay Lane Charter School, said her 750 K-5 students are comfortable at Sunny Brae Elementary School about 7.5 miles from their previous school site. She said the parents remain divided about whether to go back or not, and some still are concerned about oil spots they see on their windows and think it’s still unsafe.

“The students have finally settled in where they are,” Littlejohn said. “Some of the parents want to move back, but I’m not sure it’s best for the students at this time.”

On Tuesday morning, the LAUSD Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee presented all 1,100 employees certificates of recognition this week for making the move over winter break to temporary locations until the gas leak was plugged up. A few hundred came to the committee meeting to get honored; everyone from truck drivers to food service employees, computer experts to Beyond the Bell after school workers.


Mike Romero at the site of where they added a school.

Originally, the plan was to keep the students at their temporary locations through the end of the school year in June and then casually move back over the summer. When the leak was closed off in February faster than anticipated, Superintendent Michelle King said, “This will allow us to start planning for the return of students and staff to their home campuses,” but some parents still think it’s unsafe to go back. 

“The biggest surprise from parents and staff was how seamless it was to move when we came back after winter break,” Littlejohn said. “Other than it being an unfamiliar surrounding, it was a little miracle, and the district handled all the big and little details.”

Another principal of a relocated school, Mary Melvin, from Porter Ranch Community School, said the move was easier than expected with all the district support, and students have learned from the experience.

Board member Scott Schmerelson, who represents the district, said there is still concern about other wells in the area, and applauded the initial decision to move, which was done during the first week of King taking over as the new superintendent.

“She trusted herself and the district staff that they could accomplish the near impossible,” Schmerelson said. “The staff built two new campuses in a few weeks and others would have taken six months to do.”

King added, “I cannot overstate what a monumental task it was.”

The cost of the move exceeds $5 million, which the district expects to get back in full from Southern California Gas. They added 46 new classrooms, installed new power lines, trimmed trees, created Internet networks, installed security lights and transported desks, books, projects all over to the new sites.

Project manager Mike Romero said in his 28 years at the district he never saw so much cooperation. “It was a band of brothers collaborating to get this done,” he said. Although he hasn’t heard of any plans to move back to the original school sites, Romero said it certainly wouldn’t take as long because they don’t have to build schools from the ground up so quickly.

Not only did the 1,100 district employees work much of their holiday break, but they also faced the rains of El Nino storms during much of the construction. “It rained while they were painting,” said Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter. “They were with blow torches melting water off the ground and getting paint to dry extra fast because it was going to rain that afternoon.”

LAUSD police chief Steve Zipperman said 62 officers from his department were involved in the project as well.

“This was real out of the box thinking and it came through,” said board member Ref Rodriguez. “It was thorugh incredible hard work, dedication and intelligence that you made this happen.”

Committee chairman Monica Ratliff said they made sure every person would get a certificate, “although I’m sure people would appreciate cash more,” she quipped. “We wanted to recognize everyone who worked this miracle in such a short time.”

Ekchian read some messages she received from school children saying that they appreciated the host schools. One said, “I like the carpet, I like the different colors, I will never forget this school.”

Ekchian added, “If they can experience a terrible thing like a gas leak and remember the lovely school they were relocated to, all these efforts were worth it.”

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