Monday, September 17, 2012

SP Science Center to Go to Non-profit

John Zavalney greets Peaches, the science  center's Shetland pony.
Los Angeles Unified To Give Up San Pedro Science Center to a Non-Profit

By Diana L. Chapman

   Swimming in a chaos of budget cuts, Los Angeles Unified plans to turn over one of its last remaining science centers to a non-profit organization to continue its San Pedro operations, school officials said Monday.
   The move shocked employees at the 3 1/2 acre site who were told about the center's fate last Thursday. The news slowly trickled out over the weekend, making some residents concerned about the future of the center's popular farm animals, including Ophelia, the 500 pound sow and Peaches, a Shetland pony.
   A school official close to the matter, who asked not be named because he hadn't received clearance to discuss the change, said the time had come to admit the district could no longer afford the facility. Los Angeles School Board Member Richard Vladovic, who has fought to keep it open for the past five years, agreed for the first time it was no longer feasible. The annual budget for the center is at least $275,000, the official said.
   "The district doesn't have any money," said the administrator. "We've been keeping it together with rubber bands and glue. The alternative was to shut it down."
   School officials said they have yet to select a non-profit, but that the animals will be safe and provided for in the meantime.
   Current director John Zavalney, a San Pedro resident, has the choice to move to the downtown's district headquarters or to take a job teaching. The center's three technicians will be moved to the Granada Hills Science Center, which supplies science projects to elementary schools.
   Zavalney said he was told not to discuss the matter, but said he plans to take the 30 reptiles he cared for and place them in new homes. The director has served as the center for nearly eight years and worked on community partnerships -- including getting his salary at one point partly paid by the Department of Water and Power. That funding has since shriveled up. He added that initially he had been told they had one year to boost visitors numbers.
   His wife, Darlene, however, said she has no compunction  talking about it and said her husband is stunned.
   "He called and said: "They are going to give the center away,"  said Darlene, who added that her husband had received numerous awards for his teaching skills, including Disney's American Teaching reward as one of the top teachers in the country. "John was given two weeks to clear out his stuff and the technicians have a month. This will be John's 25th year. They've broken his spirit."
   Resident Judith Cairns, who fed and trapped wild cats at the site and had a working relationship with Zavlaney called the decision "cloak and dagger. Our hearts are broken."
   "We are horrified," she said "at what will become of Ophelia, the beloved sow, Peaches, the pony, the goats, chickens, ducks, turkey, geese, birds and the other critters who have made the science center so cherished by thousands of students, teachers and members of the community who have participated in the instructional field trips and activities at the Science Center for decades."
   Cairns said she will file a Freedom of Information Act to see how school administrators arrived at this decision.
   No non-profit has been selected to run the center that sits in the heart of a residential area on Barrywood Avenue, tucked behind North Gaffey and Westmont Drive, school officials said. A handful of such organizations had expressed interest in the past and will be recontacted.
   "There's no non-profit identified," confirmed Chris Torres, Vladovic's chief of staff. "The district did everything possible to keep it open."
   But that has just fueled speculation that the woman who once managed it as a volunteer will return to run it again. Bonnie Christensen had recently complained to Vladovic's office about the poor quality of the facility -- which had nothing to do with the recent decision, school officials said.
   A few years ago, Vladovic had the science facility renamed to the Vic and Bonnie Christensen Science and Sustainability Center because the couple who lived in the neighborhood prevented the center's closure in 1969 an ran it for several years.
   Christensen, whose husband is no longer alive, said she has no interest in running a non-profit, but would be willing to help school officials do what she did in past -- gather up funding and volunteers.
   When the center was near closure then, she lobbied to run it with volunteers and led a successful program until 1992. She received help from longshoremen and the center's neighbors to continue educating students across LAUSD  -- all manpowered by volunteers. Students learned about farm animals, eggs, nests and a myriad of other lessons about nature.
   "I'm not a non-profit and I don't even know how to start one," Christensen said, who hopes to help the district. "We're going to get it going. I certainly will support getting it back in condition. When I saw it, it looks terrible. I wanted to cry. We are determined to get it back to the way it used to look.
   "It was so pristine."