Parents Act to Switch School Districts, End Long Bus Rides

Times Staff Writer

Parents in an isolated West San Fernando Valley canyon whose children face three-hour daily bus rides to schools in Simi Valley have taken the first step toward being annexed by the closer Las Virgenes Unified School District.

Bell Canyon homeowners Tuesday night persuaded the Simi Valley Unified School District to let their children go. Next week, they will try to persuade the Las Virgenes district to take in the 300 youngsters.

A transfer, which would become effective in the 1986-87 school year, would end nearly 15 years of educational uncertainty in Bell Canyon, a wealthy three-square-mile enclave west of Canoga Park. Although the 370-home, gate-guarded community lies at the eastern edge of Ventura County, it can only be entered by a road that starts in the city of Los Angeles and crosses a one-mile stretch of Los Angeles County.

Because school systems are organized along political boundaries, Simi Valley, more than 20 hilly miles away, is the nearest Ventura County school district to Bell Canyon. But it is not close enough, according to canyon residents.

Distance Termed Prohibitive

“The distance is just prohibitive. You’re talking about at least an hour-and-a-half trip in the morning and in the afternoon,” said Renee Lowrey, a Bell Canyon mother of two who heads a parents’ group pressing for the transfer.


“That means that children can’t take part in after-school sports or other activities. It also makes it hard for parents to become involved in the schools,” she added.

The busing problem has led to a yearly race for short-term enrollment permits that enable Bell Canyon pupils to attend classes in the Las Virgenes school system and the Los Angeles Unified School District, both in Los Angeles County. It has also sent scores of Bell Canyon parents in search of private schools.

As a result, only 20 canyon youngsters attended Simi classes last year. Sixty-nine of them found spots in Las Virgenes classrooms, 94 enrolled at Los Angeles campuses and about 100 attended private schools.

“We’re trying to get a spirit where Bell Canyon children can grow together and play together and attend school together,” said Henry P. Starr, president of the Bell Canyon Assn., the group that oversees the canyon’s streets and facilities. The area, which is dotted with ranch-style houses worth $400,000 or more, has room for double the number of homes now located there.

Academic Excellence Noted

Starr said his neighbors picked Las Virgenes because of that district’s academic reputation and the availability of buses to transport canyon students to Calabasas campuses. The Los Angeles district does not offer bus service to Canoga Park and Woodland Hills schools.

“Los Angeles schools are fine, but they’re crowded,” Starr said Wednesday. “Las Virgenes’ emphasis is on academic excellence and that is undoubtedly the emphasis of our community.”

The most recent California Assessment Program standardized achievement test scores for 12th-graders found Las Virgenes pupils averaging 69% correct answers in reading and 75% in math, contrasted with Simi Valley’s 63% and 68% showing in the same categories. Los Angeles 12th-graders averaged 59% correct answers in reading and 66% in math.

Schools are financed primarily from money allocated by the state on the basis of attendance. Las Virgenes spends $2,458 a year per pupil, Los Angeles spends $2,177 and Simi Valley spends $2,380. In addition, Simi Valley budgets nearly $300 per pupil from revenues the district receives by renting surplus school sites.

John Duncan, superintendent of the 18,000-pupil Simi Valley district, said the loss of Bell Canyon students would have little effect on his district’s academic program or on its finances. The Las Virgenes transfer would save the Simi Valley district about $30,000 a year in school bus costs, he said.

Albert Marley, superintendent of the 7,300-student Las Virgenes district, said Thursday that his uncrowded campuses in the Calabasas area can easily handle the Bell Canyon children. He said he will not take a stand on the annexation question before Board of Education members take up the issue next Thursday.

If Las Virgenes agrees to the annexation, it must also be approved by county school officials in both Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and by the state’s Board of Education.

Routine Procedure

Will Grossbach, an assistant superintendent of schools for Ventura County, said approval should be routine if Las Virgenes endorses the annexation next week.

“A lot of school districts in the state cross county lines,” he said Wednesday. “Annexation would give Las Virgenes more students and more revenue and it would give Bell Canyon access to their schools and a voice in school affairs.

“I think it will be a good deal for everybody.”