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Dever Hits School District for Lax Building Fund Effort

Times Staff Writer

In another flare-up in a yearlong dispute between City Hall and the school district, City Manager John Dever has criticized school officials for pressing for a developers’ fee to pay for classrooms instead of working harder to get available state funding.

"(The school district) ought to apply today for all the state assistance that’s available,” Dever told the City Council on Tuesday in a report on ways to solve a classroom shortage the district expects by 1987.

“The state people we talked to could not understand why they (the school district) haven’t filed their plan and taken the necessary actions to get in line (for state funds),” he said.

Instead school officials have spent “most of their effort” trying to get the council to impose fees for schools on new Long Beach developments and in trying to get money from the city Redevelopment Agency, Dever added.

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Surprised and irritated by Dever’s comments, district officials said the city manager was simply wrong.

District Working

The Long Beach Unified School District first contacted the State Allocation Board about classroom funding last October and has worked with the state ever since, spokesman Richard Van Der Laan said.

“Our staff has devoted hundreds of hours to gathering the data required by the state to qualify for limited state funds,” said Van Der Laan “We have 2 1/2 feet of documents prepared as part of this application.”

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Whoever is right--and an interview with a State Allocation Board representative indicates both sides may be right in part--this most recent dispute has created a feeling among council members and school trustees that their differences should be quickly resolved. But after 13 months of discussion and debate, city and district staffs remain at loggerheads over projections of school enrollment--and still disagree on how to best provide more classrooms in a district already near capacity and expected to have at least 20,000 more students by 1999.

“To criticize the board of education is counterproductive,” said Mayor Ernie Kell in a Wednesday interview. “My relationship with the board has been excellent. I did not share (in the staff’s criticism). They are reasonable people and they are as anxious to work something out as we are.”

Urges Negotiation

Kell said it is time for council and school board members to take the issue from their staffs and negotiate with each other personally.

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The criticism is “our staff’s opinion,” Kell said of Dever’s comments and a 35-page enrollment and funding analysis distributed to the City Council. “Now, it’s time for the elected officials on both sides to see if there is room for compromise.”

At the council’s urging, Kell sent a letter Wednesday to school board President Arlene Solomon recommending formation of a committee composed primarily of council and school board members.

Solomon was at an education conference and unavailable for comment. But veteran school board member Elizabeth Wallace said the committee sounded like a good idea and that she was eager to resolve past differences.

“This kind of adversarial relationship doesn’t help public confidence in either the school district or the City Council,” she said.

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“I’m puzzled myself by all this,” she said. “We’re not saying let’s slap these (development) fees on everyone. We’re saying let’s study it and see what’s reasonable.”

City and school district disagreements already have gone to court, with the district filing a lawsuit in May over the inadequacy of the city’s environmental impact reports for new developments. School officials say they hope the suit will force the city to consider the effect new construction has on school enrollment, and perhaps prompt imposition of a fee on developers of new homes, offices and hotels.

Protests Projects

In addition, the district has formally protested every construction project before the city since early May.

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In turn, city officials have insisted that most proposed new construction would have only a negligible effect on school enrollment and that school crowding will come mostly from the immigration of large Latino and Southeast Asian families.

Fees on developers--usually imposed in growing suburban communities to pay for new roads, utilities and schools--might unfairly discourage new construction in Long Beach, city officials have argued.

Enrollment in the district’s 79 schools was 63,127 on Wednesday, up from 55,263 in 1979, and nearly all classrooms are at capacity, said Van Der Laan.

Conversion of about 200 rooms not now used for instruction would take care of a continuing increase of students until about 1987, when enrollment should reach 67,000, he said. After that, other means would have to be used, he said. The city has not built a new school in decades, and has used temporary bungalows in times of peak enrollment.

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The district projects an enrollment of at least 88,500 by 1999, while the city staff says 81,000 is a more realistic figure.

Dever said Tuesday that the schools “have a good many readily available solutions” to their expected crowding problems. His staff’s report listed more than a dozen ways the district could stretch use of existing facilities or pay for new ones.

Wallace said a number of those alternatives are already being pursued. For example, the district will probably switch at least two schools to year-round programs on a trial basis next fall, she said.

Estimates Cost

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Van Der Laan said it would take between $15 million and $30 million to provide enough classrooms for all students in 1995. The lower figure is for lease or purchase of portable classrooms, the higher one for construction of new schools, he said.

The district has about $18 million in “unappropriated cash” with which to begin its efforts, Dever said. But William Wright, school district controller, said that money is not surplus and nearly all of it is unavailable for capital improvements.

The city manager drew the most fire, however, for his remarks about the district’s efforts to gain state classroom funding.

“I think (Dever) is saying we don’t have an adequate knowledge of how to secure financing, and we absolutely do,” said Wallace.

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And a representative of the State Allocation Board, which handles requests from local districts for classroom funds, confirmed Thursday that the school district is about one year into a two- to three-year application process for state money.

The district, however, has not filed a formal application for funds and has not been given a number that establishes priority on a waiting list, said Barbara Renken, the field representative for Long Beach schools. Other factors, such as need, are also considered when deciding which applicants get state money, Van Der Laan said.

“I think the district is proceeding the best it can under the circumstances,” said Renken, who said she was one of two workers in her office to provide information to the city about the school district.

Renken said the school district’s progress toward formal application has been slowed because, unlike districts with newer facilities, Long Beach had no detailed drawings of existing school buildings when it first contacted the state. No application can be filed without such an inventory, she said.

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Drawings Working

According to Van Der Laan, specific drawings of about half the district’s 5 million square feet of floor space have been prepared in recent months and submitted to the state. The rest of the drawings will be in Sacramento by the end of the year, he said.

“This part of the process takes the longest,” he said.

Renken said Long Beach’s efforts also have been hampered because of some misinformation from her department, which had been short-staffed and unable to repond as promptly as it should to paper work and inquiries.

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At Tuesday’s meeting, Dever also criticized the school district for pressing first for local financial assistance, rather than going to the state.

Renken said, however, that the school district is required to pursue all possible local remedies to classroom crowding before state funds can be granted.

“In exploring that (local) funding, the district was really doing what it should have done,” she said. “That is one of our first criteria.”

Renken said she would not recommend that Long Beach rush its application because incomplete information can stop a grant request in its tracks.

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