Plan to transform bleak school playground hits a big snag

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

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.

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