Partial Solution to Crowding : Bell High Gets Approval to Add 4 Portable Rooms

Times Staff Writer

In an effort to ease overcrowding at Bell High School, the City Council has given the Los Angeles Unified School District permission to place four portable classrooms on a faculty parking lot across the street from the main campus.

The approval--which came after months of haggling between the city and school district--removes for now the threat of increased busing of the high school's students or loss of athletic areas at the campus. Bell High students and teachers who packed the council chambers Monday night gave the 4-to-0 vote a standing ovation.

But a key district official said Tuesday that overcrowding at Bell High may be back on the council's agenda in coming weeks. Roger Friermuth, a construction project manager for the district, said the school needs to find a place to put 10 other portable classrooms that are on the site of a proposed cafeteria and science building.

Latino immigration and high birthrates in the Southeast area have swollen school enrollments in recent years, and Bell High is among those schools with the tightest squeeze.

3,700 Students

Built in 1925 for 1,200 students, it will have about 3,700 attending in three shifts this fall. Another 375 to 400 students from the area will be bused to schools in the San Fernando Valley, Principal Mary Ann Sesma said. Under a year-round schedule adopted in 1980, about 2,500 students attend school at the same time.

Overcrowding is "a very serious problem and is getting worse and worse," Sesma told the council. Without the four additional portable classrooms, 300 to 400 more students would have to be bused out of the community, she said.

Byron Kimball, director of school facilities services for the district, said the district would be forced to move the classrooms onto the school's volleyball and basketball courts if the council did not approve the move to the faculty parking lot.

But use of athletic fields for portable classrooms may still be necessary, Friermuth said. Construction on the cafeteria and science building, scheduled to start within three months, will displace 300 students from about 10 existing portable classrooms, he said in an interview.

Friermuth said that unless the city is willing to permit the district to temporarily move the 10 classrooms onto the faculty parking lot, the district has only two options: taking over the athletic fields or leasing classroom space in nearby churches and commercial buildings.

The two-story cafeteria and science building with 11 classrooms will be built with $5.4 million in state funds, Friermuth said. The building is expected to be ready for occupancy by September, 1987. The district is also working on design plans for remodeling the main building, which would add five to eight classrooms, Friermuth said.

Months ago, the district informally proposed filling the faculty parking lot with 18 classrooms, but council members argued that parking overflow and pedestrians would make traffic even worse in an already congested commercial area near the school. Council members had also argued that the plan would decrease parking for residents in the neighborhood.

Modified Permit

Under the modified permit approved Monday, the district would use only about one-third of the faculty parking lot for four portable classrooms. In addition, the council required the district to lease at least 30 parking spaces from nearby businesses for faculty members.

The district also agreed to provide a fence with a gate near the crosswalk at Bell and Flora avenues. The gate would encourage the 240 students walking to and from the classrooms each hour to cross in an orderly fashion at the corner, city officials said.

In response to students' complaints of excessive heat during summer classes, the council also required the district to give priority to installing air conditioning in the main building. Existing portable classrooms--about 35% of classroom space at the school--already have air conditioning, Sesma said.

Other conditions placed on the district's permit include construction of restrooms near the new classrooms and a chain-link fence to separate the portable classrooms from the rest of the parking lot.

New Spirit

The plans for placement of the four new portable classrooms, while not a solution to either school crowding or traffic congestion in the area, is an example of a new spirit of cooperation between city and district officials, city officials said.

"For a while, we seemed to be working at cross-purposes, but now we're both trying to solve the problem," Councilman Clarence Knechtel said Tuesday. "I don't know the answer (to overcrowding) and I don't think anybody does."

But for Sesma, the new classrooms will provide at least temporary relief.

"I'm enormously pleased," she said Tuesday. "The council was extremely gracious and we owe them a large debt."

Times Staff Writer Sebastian Dortch contributed to this story.

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