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A little progress — but a long way to go — at LA schools' music repair shop

Stacks of trombones await repairs on a palette at the Los Angeles Unified School District's repair shop downtown during a visit in September 2013.
Stacks of trombones await repairs on a palette at the Los Angeles Unified School District's repair shop downtown during a visit in September 2013.
Grant Slater/KPCC

The Los Angeles Unified School District's backlog of broken string instruments is about to see some relief.

During KPCC's September visit, the district's musical instrument repair shop was down to just one string repair tech. Now Donald McKinley, the shop's acting shop supervisor, will return to repairing string instruments in a few weeks, he said, as the district brings in another supervisor.

It also has a new outside contractor to help with the backlog. The Los Angeles Violin Shop learned about the story via a Facebook share of KPCC's story; the private company will join a small group of contractors the district pays to help with the backlog.

But string instruments represent a small portion of the problem. The shop has no one on staff to fix its woodwinds - and long-term relief is months away at best.

Performing and Visual Arts Coordinator Tony White, who works for the district's Beyond the Bell branch, estimated that it may be January or February before the district can hire new employees for the shop, which used to have 25 people on staff. It's now down to six repair technicians. 

"We are still in the infancy stage of discussing" possible staff increases, White said. "We won't know exactly how far, how fast we'll be able to move."

The school district's music repair shop has been around since 1960. It serves as a central location and handles all of the district's musical instrument repairs. 

About 2,600-3,000 broken instruments are sitting on shelves and in bins there, backlogged, according to White. Since students often share one instrument per five students, that could mean 15,000 students without access to instruments.

"We should not have these type of situations happen," White said.

Kristin Ballora said access to musical instruments at her 8th grade son's school has gotten worse, not better, since the school year started. Her son plays the cello at Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, which is part of L.A. Unified.

"There are kids now that cannot play because there's no instruments available," she said, citing problems like a cello without a bow and one instrument that was so beat up one student got a splinter in his finger playing it. "Kids don't deserve that." 

Ballora said she hopes to create a funding program for the music repair shop and has plans to reach out to successful people in the music industry, as well as private repair shops to recruit support. 

"I feel very passionately that kids should be able to have access to music," she said.

White said he feels optimistic that things are moving in the right direction for the music repair shop. He recently met with Michelle King, the district's senior deputy superintendent of school operations, to discuss funding and hiring strategies for the repair shop.

"This is where we are now," he said. "How do we get out of it, and how do we make sure it doesn't happen again?"