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Candidates Focus on Surplus School Land

Times Staff Writer

With half of the city’s 10 schools closed, candidates in the Nov. 5 election for the Manhattan Beach Board of Education are spending most of the campaign talking about surplus property and what to do with it.

Five candidates, including one incumbent, are vying for three seats on the board, which sets policy for the district’s 2,220 students and oversees its $8.3-million budget. Trustees Hanon Sinay and Norm Burd are not seeking reelection.

The top three vote-getters in the election next week win four-year terms on the board, which meets twice a month. Board members are paid $25 per meeting.

The surplus-school issue is not a new one in Manhattan, but it has flared in recent months because of the closure in June of Center Middle School, which offered classes for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Center was the fifth district school to close because of declining enrollment and rising costs.

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Three of the candidates opposed the closure as well as an accompanying decision to reorganize the district. Under the new system begun this year, sixth graders attend elementary schools, and seventh and eighth graders attend the former Begg Middle School, now renamed Manhattan Beach Intermediate School.

Previously, sixth graders attended one of two middle schools, Center and Begg, and the elementary schools offered classes for students from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Attend Mira Costa

The Manhattan Beach City School District offers classes from kindergarten through eighth grade for residents of the city. Graduates attend Mira Costa High School, part of the South Bay Union High School District.

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Following are the five candidates, in alphabetical order, and their positions on some issues facing the district. Aside from the incumbent, none of them has run previously.

- James A. Clairmont, 42, an economist with General Telephone Co. of California, is an outspoken critic of the decisions to close Center school and to reorganize the district. Indeed, Clairmont said he will work to reopen the former middle school if he is elected.

Clairmont, who has a son at Manhattan Beach Intermediate, said the current school board is destroying one of the best things about Manhattan schools: their neighborhood appeal.

“One of the reasons I moved to Manhattan Beach was to get a good education for my kids and to allow them to walk to school safely,” Clairmont said. “People want good schools and they want them in the neighborhood.”

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Clairmont predicted that the new intermediate-school system will not even accomplish its primary goal--saving money for the district--because of increased busing costs and the need to lease trailers at Manhattan Beach Intermediate for classrooms.

‘Competitive Business’

Clairmont said the district would not get over its financial problems until it is able to attract students who are attending private schools. “We have to start running this district as a competitive business,” he said. “We are competing with every private school in the South Bay area.”

District officials said a door-to-door survey conducted this year showed that 390 Manhattan Beach children are attending classes from kindergarten through eighth grade in private schools or other districts.

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- Gary R. Collins, 47, director of business administration for TRW information systems group, has served on the board for four years--the last two years as president. His youngest child graduated from the district in June.

Collins said he is running on his record. He defends his vote to close the Center school and says the reorganization has strengthened educational programs and possibly saved two neighborhood schools from closure.

“We heard from parents at four elementary schools who said they wanted elementary schools in their neighborhoods,” Collins said. “By having the sixth graders in combination with the seventh and eighth graders, in my estimation it created serious enrollment problems for two elementary schools--Pacific and Tennycamp. They would have been considered for closure.”

Collins said the decision to close Center was not a political decision, but one that was made in the best interest of the district’s students. “We cannot afford to keep two intermediate schools,” he said.

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Collins said overcrowding at Manhattan Beach Intermediate, which will require the use of four trailers for classrooms beginning in November, is temporary. He said next year’s incoming class will be smaller and will fit in existing classrooms.

Collins said he opposes selling surplus schools unless absolutely necessary, although he does support the sale of the district headquarters. He said the board is negotiating with the city to rezone the land where the headquarters is located so it can be sold for residential development.

- Robert A. Devine, 41, an attorney in Hermosa Beach, said the current school board resembles a “rudderless ship” that is concerned about education but ignorant of the management needs of the district. He said his professional experience, which includes time as a management consultant for the federal Small Business Administration, is sorely needed.

Premature Decision

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Devine, who has two children enrolled in the district, served as chairman of an ad hoc district committee on school closures in 1981. He said the board’s decision to close Center school and to reorganize the district was made prematurely.

“The board is reacting to each individual crisis,” Devine said. “We need to develop a long-range plan for the use of school properties. You have to lay out your plans and have some foresight to know what decisions are going to have to be made in the future.”

Devine said he is opposed to selling any of the five closed schools until the district has some reliable projections about future enrollment. He predicted that enrollment will soon stabilize, and, if anything, increase in coming years.

“It is better to hold on to the property for five years rather than sell it a year or two early,” he said. “You have to analyze to see if we might need those sites in case of increased enrollment.”

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- Sam Donley, 47, an engineer and manager in the aerospace industry, has a son in the district. Donley said he volunteers for classroom science demonstrations and said he served as president of the Parent-Teacher Organization in 1983 and 1984 for the Kit Carson School, a county-run special education school in Hawthorne.

Donley supports the board’s decision to close the Center school and called the reorganization “a grand success.” He said periodic change--such as the reorganization--is good for the district because it “forces people to look at things with a fresh perspective.”

Big Hurdle

Donley said the major challenge facing the board is the surplus-school question. He said that although he opposes selling the five closed schools, he supports granting leases that “to some degree” reflect the value of the property--even if that means using the property for noneducational purposes.

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“We have to get on with the job of raising the funds we need with the assets we have,” he said. “We can’t wait around and hope that some unknown source will bring in some money.”

Donley said the district should work to reduce class size, and he suggested that every teacher have a telephone in the classroom. “We need much more communication with the parents,” he said. “The teachers ought to routinely call up.”

- Rosa Lee Saikley, 41, a former teacher in Torrance and El Segundo, has three children in district schools. Saikley opposed the closure of Center school but said she would not try to reopen the school if elected.

Saikley said the board needs to concentrate on making the new district organization work well for the students. She said that would include giving principals more time to concentrate on educational programs.

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“We have to make sure that we help our principals not be so busy with the mechanics of running the facility and the school so that they overlook helping teachers provide an education,” she said. “We hired seven new teachers this year.”

‘Hasty Things’

Saikley said the board should not sell surplus property until officials have scrutinized enrollment studies. She said selling schools would be a “Band-Aid approach” to the district’s financial concerns. “We have done a lot of hasty things in this district,” she said. “We have to get this district set up for the future before we sell anything.”

As a board member, Saikley said she would look into the district’s so-called “pullout programs"--those that require students to leave regular classes for voice lessons, reading clubs and other activities--to see if they are disrupting the school day.

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