Tree Care Dispute in LA Unified Putting $2.7 Million at Risk
Vanessa Romo | December 12, 2013
Support LA School Report's year-end campaign. All donations will be matched dollar for dollar.
An aerial view of Saturn Elementary School in Mid City reveals a giant asphalt rectangle – about 70,000 square feet – taking up two-thirds of a city block. There’s one tree on the playground, and the only patch of grass runs along the front of the school.
It’s a bleak portrait of an era when playgrounds were intended to be durable above all, and not necessarily pretty or pleasant.
But non-profit groups hoping to convert school playgrounds like these into green spaces are sitting on millions of dollars in state grant money, unable to break ground because they’re at an impasse with LA Unified. And the LA Conservation Corps, the organization with plans to revitalize Saturn, is on the verge of dumping the project and walking away from the free money altogether.
At the heart of the dispute is who will be responsible for the long-term maintenance of the renovations.
The state money comes from revenues raised by Prop. 84, passed in 2006 to develop parks in dense urban areas, community gardens, and to restore wetlands. But it comes with strings attached: Groups awarded funds are required to maintain the project between 10 and 20 years, depending on the size of the grant.
The non-profit groups, which have already been awarded $2.7 million for six campuses and have applied for another $2 million for five additional schools, say the district should assume the responsibility. But Mark Hovatter, Chief Facilities Director for LA Unified, says the district can’t afford that kind of commitment.
“We struggle to maintain the green spaces we already have because that comes from the general fund,” Hovatter told LA School Report. “So, the acceptance of these projects on our property will become a burden on the district.”
Hovatter said, at best, the district can add the new projects to its existing rotation of maintenance visits but cannot legally commit to sustaining the care.
“It’s possible that if the state feels we’re not doing all we should be doing to keep it up to their standards, they could ask for their money back,” Hovatter said. “Then what do we do?”
He added that it also constrains the district from making any changes to the land, saying, “We don’t know if 10 years from now we’re going to need a new science lab on that school.”
Dan Knapp, the Conservation Corps deputy director, says there is more going on: “There’s been a major shift in philosophy and their commitment to these projects at the district level.”
The Corps applied for a $1.6 million grant to renovate Saturn Elementary in 2010, and Hillcrest in Baldwin Hills and Magnolia in Pico-Union in 2011. Back then, Knapp says, the district was “completely on board and there was no question about the maintenance issue.” But since then the leadership within the facilities division has changed – Hovatter succeeded James Sohn — and so has the attitude toward the greening partnership.
Knapp says working with LA Unified has proven to be exceedingly difficult. Just last month, the Corps held a ribbon cutting ceremony for Compton Creek Natural Park, a three-acre park.
“You should see what we did there. It’s beautiful,” he said. “With LAUSD we are losing considerable money. We’ve already spent about 200 hours on this that came out of our pocket. We can’t afford to lose money on a grant.”
It’s likely the Corps will sack all three projects and forfeit the money.
“That would be so heartbreaking,” Sharyn Romano, CEO of the Hollywood Beautification Team, told LA School Report.
Romano’s group has been awarded about $500,000 in Prop 84 funds for projects at Eagle Rock Elementary and Victory Elementary.
“I’ve been doing this for 21 years, and LA Unified has totally changed the game and created other obligations,” she said.
In addition to asking non-profits to take on maintenance, Romano says the district now plans to charge non-profit groups management fees and adhere to the district’s labor agreements for the construction of the projects, things the groups have always been exempt from complying with.
As a compromise, Romano says, “We want the district to grandfather in the older grants.”
Hovatter gave no indication the district would agree. He also said, the district did not endorse projects submitted in the final round of application submissions in November.
The greening groups and the district have until the end of 2014 to find a solution or the grants will be rescinded. The actual projects must be completed by 2016.