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LA schools get greening grants but officials put projects on ice

Principal Bonnie Tanaka says a new parklet on school grounds built with Prop. 84 funds is very popular among students.
Principal Bonnie Tanaka says a new parklet on school grounds built with Prop. 84 funds is very popular among students.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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More than six years after California voters approved $63 million to fund community gardens, wetlands renewal, and tree planting in dense, urban public spaces, some schools that are getting these Prop. 84 grants are having a hard time breaking ground on the projects.

The reason: maintenance costs.

Some school districts — including the Los Angeles Unified School District — said they can't afford the upkeep.

"There’s a reason we have asphalt all over the city now," said L.A. Unified facilities division chief Mark Hovatter. "It’s because it costs one fifth as much to maintain as a green area.

"Our funding for maintenance is very limited," he added.

The state has received more than a dozen proposals for greening projects from public school partnerships.

It has awarded about $3 million to six L.A. Unified schools in Eagle Rock, North Hollywood, Baldwin Hills, Pico Union and Mid-City. Most propose tearing out asphalt or concrete to plant trees, create reading areas with benches, and capture storm water.

But the school district has to agree before the projects can start, and it hasn't agreed to any of them.

Fifth grader Jassmine Montenegro is excited about a proposal to green her campus, Saturn Elementary school in Mid City, the Los Angeles council district with the lowest number of parks.

"People used to say that our school is poor," she said. "But if we get trees and all of that, they’re not going to say that, they’re going to want to come here."

Scott McNeely, whose lived in the neighborhood for 16 years, was key in getting a $500,000 grant from the state to replace about 70,000 square feet of asphalt at the school.

"The scope of work of this project is to rip out all the asphalt and put in a green space that will accentuate the learning possibilities for the curriculum of the school," he said, "as well as have access to the community after school hours."

The project got free design work from Rogerio Carvalheiro, the architect who remodeled the Getty Villa and Union Station train station.

McNeely said school district officials have told him they can’t pay for maintenance for the 10 to 20 years required by the state. And that has left the school, which won the grant in 2010, unable to break ground.

“That’s an understandable concern but we’re here to say, 'OK, maybe we should find out some ways to produce revenues or augment the volunteerism or something — work it out,'” he said.

Neighborhood activists are willing to prune, rake, and water the new school park area.

But Hovatter, of L.A. Unified, said those good intentions usually fizzle.

"We would have parents of students spend all that time and energy and it looked great until that student graduated and that parent went away and the district could not afford to put that level of maintenance," he said.

But not all school districts are having this problem. Districts in El Monte, Compton, and Sacramento have found a way to pay for maintenance and move the projects toward construction.

Madrid Middle School in El Monte got about $100,000 of Prop. 84 funds to turn the neighborhood's favorite mattress and trash dumping ground into a parklet.

“We are surrounded by a couple of manufacturing businesses, we have the 10 freeway next to it and the river bed,” said Bonnie Tanaka, the school’s principal. On the other side of the school looms the 605 freeway.

During a recent visit, she showed off a soccer field-sized patch of native plants and young trees waving in the breeze. Half a dozen exercise stations are spread out along a winding, gravel path.

"So what we have now is an area where students can exercise," she said. "Our goal in the evening and the weekends is to open to the community, so that they can use it as well.”

The parklet opened five months ago and there’s already graffiti on one of the boulders. Prop. 84 funds paid for construction but not maintenance. The Mountain View School District’s taking care of periodic clean up, watering, and other upkeep. The non-profit Amigos de los Rios has pledged to take care of the park after school hours and on the weekend.

If L.A. Unified doesn't act soon, its six schools may lose their grants. The state will take back the money in a year.

“We have an opportunity for a green campus for 20 to 30 years," McNeely said, "and we’re not taking advantage of it.”