Updated: Nov 30, 2020
A home game of any sport instills a sense of team pride. Maybe it's Darwinism, our territoriality emerging as a vestige of our evolutionary history. Or maybe we just really like to win where everyone is watching. Whatever the case, a team’s home field, track, court, or stadium is their stomping ground. At least, it should be.
The quality of athletic facilities in schools across the LAUSD ranges widely, making generalizations difficult. Some schools are equipped with all-weather tracks and synthetic turf fields, while many still use dirt and grass. Some have spacious gyms for basketball, volleyball, and wrestling; some have baseball and softball diamonds; some have tennis courts or on-campus pools. Still others have sports teams but lack one or more of the appropriate facilities. “Close to 80 teams are without home fields. These schools have never had a home baseball game, or they cannot host a track meet because they simply don’t have these facilities” says Mark Hovatter, LAUSD Chief Facilities Executive.
For Eagle Rock student-athletes like Ellablu Wagner, the disparities “are very frustrating.” Wagner, a three-sport varsity athlete, recalls her wrestling team vying for gym time and space throughout the fall season. During soccer practices, the field’s overgrown and bumpy grass would frequently slow or misdirect her teammates’ passes. Spring showers in March and April muddied Eagle Rock’s dirt track to the point where Wagner spent days unable to run in the middle of her track and field season.
“It’s unfair,” Wagner says. “Our teams are good, but we have poor facilities. There are teams that are not even that good, but they still have nice facilities.”
Eagle Rock’s facilities not only hinder teams’ abilities to train and compete but also pose an injury risk to our athletes. “We need a safe space for wellness to make sure that folks don’t get injured,” says Principal Mylene Keipp. “I’m surprised the players don’t get injured more often. Our field can be like concrete.”
The mediocre caliber of ERHS athletic facilities mirrors the rest of the Northern League, the turf fields and synthetic tracks of Marshall HS and Sotomayor Learning Academies notwithstanding. For the most part, the NELA school facilities pale in comparison to the likes of Granada Hills, Birmingham, and El Camino Real. “Our school is supposed to compete with new schools, and our school was built in 1927. And Franklin is even older than us,” Keipp notes.
So how do we account for these inequalities? “Most of it is money,” says District 5 School Board Member Jackie Goldberg.
Like all Board Members, Goldberg has a small discretionary budget to use on athletics. Some schools also acquire community partnerships to help fund renovations, as Marshall did with its track.
But a majority of the money used in athletic facilities comes from state and district bonds. A school district requests state funds for specific school projects by applying to a body known as the State Allocation Board. Because the amount of money in the state’s funds and the facilities that the Board prioritizes vary from year to year, landing this bond money depends a lot on luck.
“What the state is willing to pay for is based on when the school was built,” Goldberg explains. For example, “in a different era, the state was paying for swimming pools. That’s how Marquez and Roosevelt got theirs.”
Even on a district level, many athletics-related upgrades rely on coincidence. According to Hovatter, the LAUSD has bonds for modernizing schools and upgrading buildings. However, athletic facilities are rarely, if ever, the impetus for the allocation of this bond money. “We tend to prioritize academic elements first,” Hovatter says. “Athletic facilities don’t rank as high as a science lab … Sports facilities are really only addressed if tied to some other required work.”
At Eagle Rock, the recent updates to our South Gym stemmed from bond money for seismic retrofitting, rather than funding for athletic upgrades. The recent remodeling demonstrates a commitment to correcting safety violations, not a movement for campus-wide improvement. “They weren’t going to build you a new gym,” Goldberg says. “They had to do it. Otherwise, you would have had the same old, pathetic gym. We take advantage of when we have to do something because we’re required. We look at how to make it a plus for the school.”
According to Hovatter, 600 schools need modernization, but only 22 are currently getting it. It comes down to “the luck of the Irish,” Goldberg says.
But neither Hovatter nor Goldberg feel it should stay this way. “We want to come up with something that’s equitable as we get more money available,” Hovatter says. He proposes the creation of a sports equity index, a 100-point scale in which schools are allotted a certain number of points depending on which athletic facilities they have on campus and the quality of those facilities. Hovatter says he plans to work with schools’ athletic departments to determine the relative point values of different facilities before presenting the idea to the school board. Collaboration with the board would allow for the establishment of a minimum score; moving forward, projects in schools scoring below this minimum would be prioritized.
Hovatter also notes that many teams in schools without athletic facilities must wander between available fields day-to-day. Many schools simply lack the space on campus to construct athletic buildings, a remnant of overcrowding in the LAUSD schools during the 1980s and 1990s. “A lot of the new campuses were built on smaller pieces of property,” Goldberg says. “You can't get in line to get money from the state to build unless you own all the property. There’s no vacant land in L.A., so schools had to buy homes, business, and other property which is a very slow process.”.
During the era of extreme overcrowding, campuses purchased smaller parcels of land to expedite construction. This left little room for athletic facilities. Now some teams are nomads, Hovatter says. He hopes to take the burden off schools in this predicament by “leveraging getting schools, if not their own facility, ownership of someone else’s.” An alternative, but not permanent, solution involves joint agreements between the district and outside entities, such as public parks, to share facilities and/or the costs of maintenance.
From Goldberg’s point of view, making facilities more equitable will require legislative action. This includes passing laws that mandate schools having a minimum of some appropriate features in terms of athletic facilities. She also encourages parents, students, and staff to advocate for their needs with their assembly members, state senators, L.A. City Council members, and school board. “One of the most important things is who’s looking out for you. You’ve got to get the people in charge to be looking out for you. Bring it to their attention. Without money, nothing’s going to happen. But without advocacy, there’s not even a chance.”
When Goldberg was elected to her current term, she surveyed principals on their schools’ renovation needs. To help student-athletes get their voices heard about the upgrades their facilities require, she says she is considering extending a similar questionnaire to student-athletes.
Principal Keipp also understands the importance of having leaders willing to recognize and support the interests of our school community. She explains that our council district and the representatives for our area have undergone some turmoil in recent years. “Ref Rodriguez prior to Jackie Goldberg, he was in some trouble. Our council member, Jose Huizar was in some trouble. It’s very challenging to advocate without political players, but we have a possibility to approach anew with Jackie Goldberg and Kevin DeLeon,” she says.
Keipp recommends that student-athletes “reach out to school board member Jackie Goldberg, reach out to District 14 council member DeLeon. We’re not going to raise enough money alone for multi-million dollar facilities … But all student-athletes deserve access to the best equipment available.”