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Some L.A. Schools Still Await Quake Repairs

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Every few weeks, the cracks in the John F. Kennedy High School gym in Los Angeles are a little bigger and its doors get a bit more out of whack.

The damaged building is a reminder of the earthquake that rocked Southern California on Jan. 17, 1994. It is also among the major repairs tied up in negotiations between local and federal officials nearly three years later.

"It brought the community together because we were all in the same boat," Pete Fries, the assistant principal at Kennedy High, said of the quake. "But as time goes on, you can put up with the dust and debris for only so long."

Overall, a monumental amount of work has repaired most Los Angeles-area schools damaged by the powerful Northridge earthquake.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, 75 percent of repairs to 5,500 damaged structures are done. The work has ranged from patching walls to building new schools.

To date, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved $105 million in repairs for the district, including a $60 million advance payment shortly after the temblor. Up to $40 million more may be requested, however, by 1998, when repairs are projected to be finished.

Another $160 million in federal and state funds will be spent to mitigate earthquake hazards by taking such precautions as replacing 200,000 hanging lamps with safer models.

"The idea is to minimize damage from future seismic activity and protect life at all costs," said Wayne Ranick, the spokesman for FEMA's Pasadena office.

Negotiations Continue

Despite the progress, several repairs are on hold while officials from California and FEMA negotiate funding levels.

For example, the parties are at odds over whether to rebuild the Kennedy High gym or simply fix it. The gym has been temporarily reinforced and is being used by 2,700 students. A new structure would cost about $6 million. Repairs would come to $1 million.

And there is discussion over how to handle numerous playground repairs. Federal regulations allow FEMA to pay only for earthquake-related damage, so the agency prefers that schools merely replace strips of asphalt where there are cracks. But older playgrounds damaged by the quake require so much work that school officials are arguing for a complete overhaul.

"We want to make sure applicants get every dollar they are eligible for, but we're also accountable to lawmakers and taxpayers," Mr. Ranick said.

Ultimately, one of the trickiest jobs may be providing project-by-project accounts of repairs as required by FEMA. Los Angeles Unified, which has 650,000 students, records the expenses by school.

"That's one of the biggest issues right now--how can we be flexible with this," said Margaret Scholl, director of the district's earthquake-recovery program. "If you're a little person on a skateboard, you can turn on a dime. It takes a long time if you're the Queen Mary."

Steady Progress

But most recovery efforts have gone smoothly, local officials say.

"It has worked out like a blessing," said Angie Stoiloff, the office manager at San Fernando Elementary School. "We have all new computers, although our walls are still cracked."

The school's auditorium was being rebuilt as she spoke, and it should be done by February.

Teachers and students at Van Gogh Street Elementary School in Granada Hills are eagerly watching their school be rebuilt. The expected completion date is 1998.

For now, Van Gogh's 375 students work in portable classrooms on the grounds of a middle school a mile away from their old school.

Kennedy High has also come a long way since quake-related damage closed the school's three main classroom buildings.

Two of those structures have since reopened. The third, which housed the administration and 20 classrooms, had to be demolished. It was in such bad shape that school officials were allowed back in for just six hours to retrieve student records.

Construction on the new $7 million building should begin next summer. For now, staff members are conducting counseling in the school's former auto shop.

"What's been missed by the media," Mr. Fries said, "is that the district's maintenance staff and inspectors really did a great job."

But is three years or more too long to wait? Mr. Ranick doesn't think so: "A lot of people ask how 10 seconds of shaking can cause so much damage. Well, that's just the reality."

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