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LAUSD board votes to shut 2 Valley schools because of gas leak

Mike Szymanski | December 17, 2015


Brian Cohen doesn’t want the schools to move.

Citing an “abundance of caution” for children the second time this week, the LA Unified school board voted today to move two Valley schools to another location until June because of toxic fumes from a leaking gas storage facility.

The unanimous vote by the seven-member board cleared the way to move 1,870 students in the Porter Ranch Community School and Castlebay Lane Charter Elementary School to new locations until the leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility is plugged.

By the vote, the board declared emergency conditions for the schools, approved the relocation of students and staff and authorized litigation to recover costs of the moves from the Southern California Gas and Sempra Energy companies. The leak was discovered Oct. 23; company officials have estimated it will take up to four months to stop.

“This is the second time we’ve used the term ‘abundance of caution,’” school board president Steve Zimmer said, echoing the rationale used on Tuesday to close all districts after an email threatened widespread violence.

Today’s decision came after the board heard from a series of experts, explaining what exactly the dangers of the gas leak are, in both short-term and long-term health consequences. Dr. Kimberly Uyeda, the district’s medical director, told the board that short-term issues such as headaches and nausea, have not been been scientifically shown to cause long-term problems.

She said she had assigned two full-time nurses to each of the schools after Thanksgiving break when there were traces of mercaptans, an odorant associated with methane gas that has a strong rotten-egg, garlicky or skunk-like smell that can be irritating to the eyes, skin and respiratory system.

“We have had children complain of headaches, nosebleeds, nausea,” she said.

But she urged the board to consider other factors before deciding, such as the physical and emotional disruption to students and families for moving them into unfamiliar instructional circumstances.

Before the vote, a half-dozen speakers appeared before the board, all of them parents of children at the schools, imploring the members to leave the schools open because the conditions had affected only a small percentage of students.

One parent, Jason Muckenthaler, said that he thought the school board’s decision to close the schools earlier in the week was a good idea, but this one is not. “That was something that was a real emergency and this is something that is not a real emergency,” he said. “Moving the schools would be making a poor decision.”

Another parent, Brian Cohen, said he sent school board member Scott Schmerelson a video of his 7-year-old son in tears last night when told he would have to go to a new school. “The emotional impact on these kids is great,” Cohen said. “The cleanest air in the area is at the top of the hill, where the school is.”


Scott Schmerelson represents the district of the schools.

Jennifer Press, a registered nurse, said, “I would be first one to leave if I thought it was going to affect my child.”

Sean O’Rourke, a neighborhood council board member whose wife works at one of the schools and children go one of the schools, said “My family life will be disrupted if the schools are uprooted. This is not the right decision for the school board.”

The Northwest Local District superintendent, Vivian Ekchian, said she had attended large community meetings in the last two weeks, hearing from hundreds of families. She was also concerned with a number of students requesting transfers to other schools.

Since the reports of the gas leaks, 10 percent of the students left Porter Ranch and 16 percent left Castlebay. Further, Ekchian said that the two schools had requests for 172 substitute teachers with 11 teachers filing for worker’s comp and three teachers asking for permanent transfers.

“We came up with solutions that will not be good for everyone, but this is impacting the education for the young people, and this kind of dialogue should not go on for the next four months,” Ekchian said.

The district said when classes resume after the three-week winter break that starts after tomorrow, the 770 students in grades K-5 who attend Castlebay Lane will be relocated to Sunny Brae Avenue Elementary in Winnetka. Porter Ranch, which has 1,100 students in grades K-8, will relocate to Northridge Middle School. Portable classrooms and available space at the host schools will be used to house the Castlebay Lane and Porter Ranch students, teachers and staff.

During the break, parents and students can tour the new campuses in Northridge. The schools will each be kept in tact at the new locations.

Schmerelson, who represents the district, said, “I am not happy or sad about this decision, but this is the right thing to do. We don’t want to gamble with our children.”

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