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When the state won't pay, schools go DIY

Students listen to stories at the Dorris Place Elementary School library, which reopened this year after parents and friends renovated the space with limited funds.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Students listen to stories at the Dorris Place Elementary School library, which reopened this year after parents and friends renovated the space with limited funds.

Counselors, librarians, P. E. teachers — budget cuts have stripped them away from hundreds of public schools in California, but not at Dorris Place Elementary. Parents there decided that if the state wouldn't pay for the programs that make school better, they'd find people who would.

The picturesque, two-story brick school tucked behind the hills of Elysian Park, lost its funding for a library aide. That meant shutting down the library at the beginning of the school year until parents could organize enough volunteers to man the shelves.

But before they re-opened their doors, Blair Lennane, who spearheaded the project and founded the Parents of Dorris, the school’s first parent group, declared a makeover was in order.

“Something of the HGTV quality because I don’t know, I’m delusional," said Lennane, laughing at herself and her love of do-it-yourself television shows. "I just thought we could do it. But it took a whole village."

The group of about 15 parents transformed the space from a storage room filled with rusting filing cabinets and cobwebs, into bright and airy space with a mid-century feel. The walls are painted a dreamy sky blue with iridescent clouds floating up near the 15-foot ceilings. Dozens of neat shelves hold more than 5,000 of the school's books. Everything from "Green Eggs and Ham" to "Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret."

It was an ambitious undertaking but not entirely out of Lennane's wheelhouse. She worked as an event planner before the recession ate her job. Now she channels the talents of parents toward courting businesses on behalf of her kindergarten-age daughter’s school.

While some schools have made up for budget gaps by tapping parents and making them pony up cash to pay for employee salaries, or school field trips, or classroom supplies, Lennane said Dorris Place doesn’t have the demographic to support that approach.

“We’re not in a position to ask our families: Can everybody kick in a $1,000 or $500 or $50. How about, we all just throw in money and accomplish this?” she asked.

That’s why instead of trying to milk dry parents, they’re trying another approach they’ve gone corporate, using their nonprofit status to apply for small grants. Home furnishings retailer Crate and Barrel donated tables, chairs, ottomans and a dozen lamps for the makeover. Home Depot gave them paint supplies galore: buckets of paint, rollers, and armfuls of tape.

School budget evisceration has become an annual ritual so corporate donations now keep music, arts and other programs in place.

At Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, former Principal Anita Schackman,
cultivated a relationship with nearby Warner Bros. Its most recent contribution was about $70,000 in major infrastructure upgrades to the middle school’s auditorium.

But these efforts are most successful in the schools where parents have the legal know-how to push through paperwork for nonprofit status and the talent to write persuasive grant proposals. The others — usually schools that are already poor — are left to flounder with inadequate programs and equipment.

It’s the kind of inequity that can only be solved if district administrators intervene, said Los Angeles Unified board member Bennett Kayser: “In the past, I’ve done grant writing myself and see the value of having someone who knows, who’s experienced at it rather trying to answer sometimes obscure questions yourself.”

Kayser represents schools from Griffith Park to South Gate, which runs the gamut from affluent to working-class. He said he’s drafting a resolution that would create new district-level positions to help schools with grant applications. Ironically, the district used to have those people, but budget cuts wiped them out.