Inglewood schools: Rats, damage despite millions in state funds

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The gym at Inglewood High School needs work. There are holes in the ceiling and water damage, and the  basketball backboard dangles at a dangerous angle, having broken loose from the pipes holding it up.

There are "rats [and] mice throughout the gym," says Sherrise Smith, a volunteer basketball coach at the school. "While we're trying to conduct a practice or a clinic, they're running around in the bleachers, on the floors."

As of April, there were no fire alarms in the gym and the alarms that did exist at the school couldn't be heard everywhere on campus, according to state investigators' notes obtained by KPCC.  

A recent visit found the boys' and girls' bathrooms in the gym in sorry shape. In the boys', the toilets and a sink were backed up, and there was what appeared to be blood on the floor and the wall. In the girls', one sink was leaking water onto the floor, the stalls were filthy, and there appeared to be fire damage on the walls. There was a strong smell of urine in the hallway.

Some students won't use these bathrooms, choosing instead to urinate in the hall, according to staffers who asked not to be identified.

Elsewhere on campus, KPCC found exposed wiring, piles of old furniture, and the only elevator broken. A fire extinguisher was boarded up.

More than two years after the state took over Inglewood Unified, the district is still struggling with fiscal and management problems, two state lawmakers have called for an audit of the state’s stewardship, and KPCC’s investigation found that conditions at some schools are unsanitary, and in some cases unsafe.

The state investigators' notes from April also documented fire alarm problems at other Inglewood Unified schools: 15 percent of the alarms were broken at Morningside High, and at Oak Street elementary the fire alarms were not operational. The L.A. City Fire Code requires that fire alarm systems be kept operational at all times.

The notes were written by independent consultants Brian Hawkins and Dean Bubar for a report issued in August by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Team, a state agency that monitors the fiscal health of school districts when they go into receivership. The Fiscal Crisis and Management Team issues such reports on an annual basis.

Inglewood Unified spokeswoman Kristin Agostoni has not yet responded to KPCC’s repeated requests for comment on whether the district has taken steps to address the problems with the fire alarms.

At Monroe Middle School, teachers' aide Linda Finny says "the floors are all torn up" in some of the classroom bungalows. In the classroom where she helps teach severely disabled children, "the restroom hasn't been cleaned in two weeks," she says.

The state took over Inglewood Unified in 2012, when the district was on the verge of bankruptcy. Sacramento opened a line of credit for the district, which has borrowed $29 million. The state has also put a series of trustees in charge, the latest being Don Brann.

Earlier this year, to cut the deficit, Brann laid off nearly 150 employees, including most of the cleaning staff and all 23 campus security guards, called supervisors.

The layoffs meant that since the school year began, most of the district's 20 schools have been without a security guard — including Highland Elementary, according to Agostoni. That school was on lockdown three weeks ago after a child tried to stab another one with scissors, and the week before, another student brought box cutters to school, she said.

Natalie, the mother of a 12-year-old boy who attended an Inglewood elementary school, says her son frequently ran into trouble after the school year began .

"My son only attended the school for four weeks, and he was assaulted three times," says Natalie, who asked that her name and the name of her son's school be kept anonymous. She subsequently pulled her son out of Inglewood Unified and sent him to school in another district.

The layoffs of security personnel angered Chris Graeber, an official with California Professional Employees Union  Local 2345, which represents the district's non-teaching staff. He contrasted the layoffs with Brann's recent decision to extend the contract for his personal security detail. The contract is valued at more than $300,000.

"That's a lot of money, that's at least, probably six or seven ... security people," says Graeber. "We say this line, 'the students come first.' Well no, in this case it's the state trustee comes first."

KPCC made repeated requests to interview Don Brann for this story, but his office said he was unavailable. Last month Brann told KPCC the campus security guards were laid off as part of a process to toughen qualifications, including adding background checks  and a requirement that the security personnel get certified to carry a weapon, "although we don't want them to carry a weapon," he said. 

Last week Brann sent a memo to Inglewood Unified faculty and staff announcing that the district "has selected 17 individuals to fill safety positions at our school sites as soon as possible." The newly hired security staff will provide "additional services," he said, including CPR, truancy and drug prevention and conflict resolution, among other things. The district also plans to hire additional school police officers "in the near future," Brann wrote in the memo, which was obtained by KPCC.

In its August report, The Fiscal Crisis and Management Team sharply criticized the district's leadership, finding problems with everything from blocked exit doors to bad accounting.

"FCMAT remains concerned that the district lacks the ability and capacity to set priorities, implement systemic reform, establish high expectations for student achievement, manage resources, ensure accountability, and align practices," the report says. Brann has said he's working on fixing the problems cited in the report.

Citing his concerns about the management of the funds loaned to Inglewood Unified, as well the district’s ongoing fiscal problems, State Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) asked the state legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee in June to audit the state’s handling of the takeover. The committee rebuffed his request. Huff tried again in August, with Assemblyman Isadore Hall (D-Los Angeles) joining him in making the request. The committee again voted down the idea, said Huff’s spokesman Micah Grant.

Brann was appointed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who won re-election on Tuesday. Graeber argues that the buck stops at Torlakson's desk.

"Inglewood should be a test case of what is wrong with a state takeover," says Graeber. "It didn't work from day one."

Torlakson did not respond to requests for an interview.

Brann has said he has plans to tear down and rebuild Inglewood High, but for now, basketball coach Sherrise Smith says she's having a hard time staying motivated, and thinks the students are as well.

"Why would you be motivated to go to school everyday and give your best and be your best when [district leaders are] not giving you their best?" she asks.

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Monroe Middle School. KPCC regrets the error.

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