South Gate Hires Lawyer to Stop Busing of Students

Times Staff Writer

In an effort to prevent 250 freshmen from being bused to a school in Watts starting in September, the City Council has hired a lawyer to research several strategies to fight the proposal, including a possible lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District and a lengthy legal process to create an independent citywide school district.

The City Council voted 4 to 0 at a special meeting Wednesday night to spend up to $6,000 to hire John J. Wagner, a Burbank lawyer who represents about 40 school districts in the state, to fight a proposal by Los Angeles schools to redraw district boundaries and send South Gate High School students from the city's west side to Jordan High School in Watts.

Wagner declined comment on the city's possible tactics and chances for success.

District officials say the transfer of students is necessary because South Gate High is overcrowded with 3,500 students while Jordan, less than two miles from the city, is about 700 students short of its full enrollment of 1,746. The district already buses about 300 South Gate students to three high schools in the San Fernando Valley.

City officials, however, say they are worried that South Gate children will be sent to a school that has an inferior quality of education and is in a high-crime neighborhood. (Recent state "report cards" for the schools show South Gate students had an average combined Scholastic Aptitude Test score of 752, while Jordan High students had an average combined SAT score of 589.)

"People are already saying they're going to move out of town," said Councilman Henry Gonzalez, who requested that the city set up an Anti-Boundary-Change (ABC) defense fund of $6,000 to hire Wagner.

Gonzalez donated $1,000 of his own money to the fund. The council voted 4 to 0 to transfer $5,000 to it from reserve funds.

"We're going to stop this son of a gun one way or another," said Gonzalez, who drove back and forth to the council meeting from a business meeting in San Diego Wednesday night to ensure the council had a quorum.

The council asked Wagner to research whether the city can sue the district to require school officials to make a formal environmental impact study of the busing plan. The suit would seek to make the district comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, which normally affects significant construction projects. Complying with the act would require the district to hold public hearings and address concerns raised by the environmental impact report.

City officials, conceding such a suit may be a long shot, maintain that the busing proposal would alter the social fabric of the community and have a detrimental effect on property values.

"I don't know if we'll win it (a lawsuit), but I'm willing to hold them (the school district) up for a while," Gonzalez said.

John Greenwood, president of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Thursday in an interview that he doubted whether the city could win such a suit in court or succeed in the long legal process required to create its own district.

Greenwood said he did not believe the school district would be required to make an environmental impact study because the student transfer was a matter of redrawing district boundary lines and, "we change boundaries all the time."

To withdraw from the district, 25% of the city's voters would have to petition to create a new school district, which would then have to be approved by both the county and state boards of education, Wagner said.

While the school board is not expected to vote on the busing proposal for another two months, Greenwood said he wondered if the strong sentiments expressed by South Gate officials are shared by parents and students who would be affected by the move.

"I certainly know what the power structure in South Gate thinks about the proposal, but I'm not quite so sure what the people in the affected area think," he said.

District officials will meet with parents of South Gate students to find out what they think of the proposal, Greenwood said.

Carmen Cordero, one of hundreds of parents who attended a meeting of parents and city officials on the issue Tuesday at South Gate Junior High School, said, "I don't want my boy (a seventh-grader at South Gate Junior High) to go to Jordan. I don't like that area."

John Trujillo, whose son is a sophomore at South Gate High, said he opposed the transfer of students because he was concerned about "drugs and gangs" around Jordan.

Instead of transporting South Gate students to Watts, city officials want the district to build a new high school in the city and set up temporary classrooms in city-owned buildings in South Gate Park.

Greenwood said that the district does not have enough money of its own to build a new high school in South Gate and would need state funds for such a project. But he said he would be interested in using city park facilities.

"If we could work out a leasing arrangement that makes sense . . .. Boy I'd be very interested in talking about that," he said.

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