Aging infrastructure: The urgency for overdue renovations in LA schools

Despite plans being made more than 15 years ago for campus updates, 110-year-old Van Nuys High School continues to lag behind other LAUSD schools  in receiving necessary improvements while neighboring schools undergo modernization.
Despite plans being made more than 15 years ago for campus updates, 110-year-old Van Nuys High School continues to lag behind other LAUSD schools in receiving necessary improvements while neighboring schools undergo modernization.

The state of school infrastructure plays a crucial role in providing a conducive learning environment for students and faculty. However, several schools, including Van Nuys, face significant challenges in improving infrastructure. 

Sunnybrae Elementary School, located in Winnetka, CA had students, teachers and parents protesting at the beginning of March over the presence of mold and carbon monoxide in student classrooms.

Picking his 10-year-old son up from school, Mike Barnard observed a sudden change in his son’s health and behavior, experiencing symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, throat infections and more. Dismissing the symptoms as a cold and associating his son’s repetitive illness with a weak immune system, Barnard would later realize that he was wrong. 

After being handed a letter by another parent sharing information about what was occurring at the elementary school, Mike Barnard discovered the real perpetrator that was repeatedly making his son sick: mold.

DETERIORATED Many of the A/C units in the bungalows are rusted and faulty, leading to poor air circulation and stuffy classrooms for students in the area. (THE MIRROR | IVAN ALCALA)

“I noticed that he didn’t have the same energy he used to where he would always want to play, always wanted to do something,” he said. “When I found out about what was really going on, I immediately jumped on board.” 

Experienced in organizing campaigns, Barnard adopted the role of being the speaker of the movement, vocalizing the complaints of parents, teachers and students. 

Before protesting in front of Sunnybrae’s campus, Barnard along with other parents attempted to communicate their concerns to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), hoping to receive a response. They submitted medical records, pictures of mold in classrooms and a petition asking for Principal Dana Carter’s removal.

“Ideally, we wanted the district to address the situation,” he said. “But nobody responded and we moved forward with protesting.”

According to Barnard, Principal Carter had been aware of the mold in classrooms since September and advised faculty to not tell parents.

During a phone call with a district representative, Barnard emphasized that if a district member’s child were attending Sunnybrae and exposed to mold in a classroom, immediate action would’ve been taken. He says that the district member agreed with him.

“I told her, ‘Had it been one of your children, you would’ve torn down those bungalows and fired the principal for neglect,’” he said. “A lady who works for the district flat out agreed with me.”

Uploading evidence of mold and videos of the protest on his TikTok and Instagram pages, Barnard is determined to continue to advocate not just for Sunnybrae, but for schools everywhere. 

@la_chroniclesSunny Brae Avenue Elementary School studenta and parents protest alleged carbon monoxide and mold in classrooms♬ original sound – Los Angeles Chronicles

“It sucks that my son had to go through this, but I’m taking it as an opportunity to educate others into getting involved in protecting children,” he said. “This is about helping future generations.”

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) conducts an assessment of the performance and condition of American infrastructure, assigning letter grades based on the physical condition of infrastructure and the extremity of needed investments for enhancement.

In the 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, the ASCE gave school facilities across the country a D+ rating, affirming that 53% of public school districts need to update or replace several building systems such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

Representing the second largest sector of public investment, state capital funding was down 31% in the 2017 fiscal year (FY)  in comparison to the 2008 FY, equating to an approximate reduction of 20 billion dollars of annual funding to public school facilities nationwide.

FALLING APART Some of the HVACs of the school, particularly the ones behind the art building, are overgrown and outdated. (THE MIRROR | IVAN ALCALA)

Beyond being educational institutions for new generations, schools are also community centers that people can resort to in emergency situations. Thus, it is pivotal for schools to be in good condition, providing adequate spaces, clean water, reliable heating and air conditioning and modern technology for students and community members. 

Over 100 years old, Van Nuys faces a plethora of issues with much of its infrastructure in disrepair. 

From deteriorating parking lots to outdated restrooms and “temporary” bungalows, the list is extensive. 

The presence of asbestos in certain areas, such as on the floor of the main building, further complicates infrastructure repairs and replacements, necessitating meticulous planning and adherence to safety guidelines.

Despite plans being laid out more than 15 years ago, the school continues to lag behind in receiving necessary improvements. While neighboring schools undergo modernization, Van Nuys remains overlooked, raising concerns within the school community. 

According to facilities administrator Ms. Anabel Bonney, district officials have given different reasons for the delays. They argue that Van Nuys is structurally sound. 

Repurposing student restrooms for staff and designating the restroom in the 400s Building for special education students, it is clear that there is a shortage of adequate restrooms. 

“There are ten restrooms that we have available to support close to 300 employees,” Ms. Bonney said.

Limited access to a restroom renders teachers’ abilities to teach, as it takes time away for both teachers and students to travel to a farther restroom. 

The school’s age and neglect from district officials have created hazards for students and faculty that continue to degrade the campus. These issues become more expensive to repair as time goes on. 

“Bathroom renovation can be anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000,” Ms. Bonney estimated. “They’re old and could really use a renovation.”

In LA Unified’s 2022-26 Strategic Plan, Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho and LAUSD Board Member President Kelly Gonez proposed five pillars representing the district’s focal point in improving the performance and quality of education students receive.

RAMSHACKLE Many grates protecting the A/C units in the bungalows are rusted and have been pulled off, leading to poor air circulation and stuffy classrooms for students in the area. (THE MIRROR | IVAN ALCALA)

The five pillars of the 2022-26 Strategic Plan are academic excellence, joy and wellness, engagement and collaboration, operational effectiveness and investing in staff.

In the fourth pillar of modernizing school infrastructure, the Strategic Plan aims to modernize information technology infrastructure in at least 66% of schools, improve LAUSD’s solar power system to reach 62% of capacity and identify major modernization projects at seven schools, with an additional $650 million going towards funding classroom projects accessibility enhancements by 2026.

Over 4.19 billion dollars were allocated towards major and comprehensive modernization projects in over 20 high schools across LAUSD, with construction almost completed or set to begin within the next two to three years.

Van Nuys High School was not one of the schools included in the plan.

According to District 3 Board Member Scott Schelmerson, each Board Member got to nominate a school they wanted to prioritize in the Major Modernization project, totalling seven schools receiving major modifications. 

Before being represented by Scott Schmerelson, Van Nuys was represented by District 6 Board Member Kelly Gonez. 

The criteria used by Gonez in determining which schools to prioritize was queried, but no response was received from her or her office. 

Introduced by LAUSD in 1998 as temporary structures to relieve overcrowded classrooms, bungalows have become a long-standing fixture at various schools across the district. Notably at Van Nuys, they have occupied the 500s area for over 25 years.

“It’s been over 25 years and they’re still here,” Ms. Bonney said. “25 years is not temporary. They’ve become ingrained in our school’s infrastructure.”

Apart from the lack of restrooms and residential classrooms, outdated HVAC units occupy both the 100s and 200s buildings.

Ms. Bonney explains that the Main building currently uses a portable HVAC unit that the district rents for approximately $10,000 per month, while the 200s building has a temporary HVAC unit that has occupied its exterior for more than seven years. 

“The temporary unit was supposed to go on the roof of the Science Building to power all the AC and heating inside,” she said. “The roof structure cannot withstand the weight of the unit, therefore preventing a crane from placing it on top.” 

DILAPIDATED The stairs in between the science and main buildings are crumbling and asymmetrical. (THE MIRROR | IVAN ALCALA)

From Mar. 12 to July 31, a team sent from the district will be conducting a survey to analyze the accessibility and safety of buildings, classrooms and structures on our campus, recording and photographing any faults. After meeting with Mr. Schmerelson and giving him a tour of the campus while presenting its issues, Ms. Bonney hopes this will lead to some improvements. 

“I already know we’re going to be out of compliance,” Ms. Bonney said. “We’re over 100 years old.”

Ms. Bonney goes on to say that she believes this survey will advance and raise more awareness on modernizing the school’s infrastructure.

Van Nuys will be receiving taxpayer money from the state of California to improve schools in the next five to 10 years. Ms. Bonney hopes that the school will advance and establish a 500s Building, along with other amenities. 

She believes modernizing the school will retain faculty members and attract students to attend Van Nuys, considering the school’s decreasing enrollment rate.

“We could benefit from the modernization,” she said. “I think it would definitely attract more students and help increase our enrollment and maybe retain a lot of our staff that we have.”

The continuous lack of improvement in school infrastructure is a pressing issue that demands urgent attention and action. Neglected schools not only fail to meet the basic needs of students and teachers, but also perpetuate inequality and hinder academic achievement.

The abridged version of this article appeared in the Spring 2024 print edition. This is an uncut version.

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Delmis Vaquerano
As a deep inquirer and keen observer, I am enthralled by the world around me and the subtleties that lie beyond the surface. From deconstructing metaphors to noticing my heart-shaped nostrils, I scour the planet and the internet for answers that exist behind behaviors and occurrences. As a new addition to The Mirror, I strive to translate the perplexities that propagate our social world. Outside of spectating my environment, you could find me visiting beaches, exploring national parks, or hiking on mountain trails.
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    Tim MitchellMay 22, 2024 at 7:52 am

    I am so sorry to hear about air quality issues. I must say I’m not surprised. HVAC systems regardless of age only move air. I manufacture equipment that destroys pathogens including mold from the air. I’ve done this for over twenty years. I can clean a single room or the entire building. I would like to discuss how we can help.