A Sign of Trouble on Campus

Pay attention. There'll be a quiz at the end of this paragraph:

Earlier this year, the graduating class of an Orange County high school wanted to make the traditional parting gift to the school and decided to have the school's name painted across the top of the gym. They hired a sign painter, the job was quickly completed, the painter was paid in full, and everyone on campus thought it looked fine.

Question: So what's the problem?

Answer: The problem is it's Woodbridge High School, which is in Woodbridge, the new section of Irvine. And in Woodbridge, the slightest departure from dictated design standards can get you hauled before either the homeowner association board or the City Council, both of which have the power to force conformity.

The sign became an issue on Aug. 1, when a letter to the editor appeared in the Irvine World News, the weekly newspaper distributed to every household in the city.

The writer, A.C. Schick III, called the sign "a breach of the 'Irvine Way of Life.' "

He was attracted to Woodbridge because of its greenbelts, parks, mandatory earth-tone colors and enforced upkeep, he wrote.

"I have been in shock that the Woodbridge High School has been exempted from the rules the rest of us citizens live by and being allowed to paint a giant billboard on the school building stating 'Woodbridge Warriors.' The disproportionate size is bad enough without painting it in fire engine red." (The school's colors are red and gold.)

"I say the sign should be painted out or at least shrunk to a quarter of the size and painted in an earthtone."

Anywhere else, you could shrug it off as the ranting of some grump. But the deed restrictions in Woodbridge have granted grumps more power than they have ever had, and consequently there are a lot of grumps in town. One complaint from any of them about your building and you'd better circle the wagons.

So naturally, Principal Greg Cops began to get nervous. He began to wonder whether he should have checked first with the homeowners association or City Hall. "It just didn't enter my mind," he said. "We just forgot where we live, I guess."

He decided to wait. "I figured it was best not to go out asking. We were just hoping it would all go away."

But it didn't. The following week's edition of the News contained a letter supporting the sign. Then the next week there were two more letters--one in favor, one against.

Eryn Greenfield thought violation of the city's "code of ethics" was no way to nurture school spirit and pride.

" . . . I have to agree with A.C. Schick III's letter of Aug. 1 to paint it out like the rest of us citizens would have to," she wrote. "The 'Irvine Way of Life' should never run perpendicular to the aims and goals of our city."

Errol Allan, one of the school's counselors, wrote: " . . . it would seem to be carrying the Irvine life style to an absurd extreme to deny the students that which is seen on virtually every gymnasium in Orange County, including University High School's Trojan gymnasium (also in Irvine)."

What's wrong with red, Allan asked. "Reactions such as Mr. Schick's are what cause my non-Irvine friends to refer laughingly to my hometown as the 'City by the Beige.' "

The letter debate persisted into last week. A recent graduate of the school wrote that she was "disgusted with the close-minded 'yuppies' living in Irvine."

"This has gone a little beyond what is usual here," said Don Dennis, who edits the letters.

Back at Woodbridge High, Principal Cops' nervousness was turning into outright worry. Likewise with some students. "I had kids from the senior class calling, saying they didn't mean to cause trouble," Cops said. "A youngster actually came in last week and said we should do what they did for Bob's Big Boy--vote whether to keep it. He said he thought we'd win."

Gordon Getchel, the school board president, said he asked Cops to write up a memo about it, "so the board will know what to say when people call us. He got a little defensive."

Can you blame him? With that much complaining going on, Cops was expecting a knock on the door at any minute and a visit from some sort of neighborhood taste enforcement officer.

"We've really prided ourselves on taking care of this campus," he said when I telephoned. It sounded as if he was looking over his shoulder as he talked.

"We've had very good relations with the community association. We have very good relationships with everyone who works for the association--at least I think so. The school blends right in with the community. We tried to use the same architecture features that the Irvine Co. uses in their homes. You could drive right by and not know it's a high school." (That's considered good in Woodbridge.)

I telephoned the Woodbridge Village Assn. offices, where Bob Jones, whose job is enforcement, said the school is outside his association's jurisdiction. "The school's in the commercial corridor. I enforce in the village, not the commercial corridor."

I called City Hall and talked to John Murphy, manager of development. "To my knowledge, the city has no concern," he said. "I know under state law the schools are exempt from our development review process."

Cops was relieved to hear the news. It looks as if the senior class sign will remain in place.

"Only in Irvine could this be an issue," Getchel said.

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