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Peninsula District’s Big Issue: Lost Dollars

Times Staff Writer

Eight candidates for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District’s school board agree that the winners in Tuesday’s elections will have to tackle one big question:

What can a once-wealthy district do to maintain its high standards after it has lost 40% of its enrollment over the past decade--along with a proportional share of state funding based on enrollment--and the government in Sacramento has so far ignored pleas for more help?

Answers proposed by the candidates range from more aggressive lobbying and selling more surplus school sites, to closer scrutiny of expenditures and charging parents a fee when they take their children out of school without excused absences.

All but one of the candidates discount any chance of getting local taxpayers to accept any new levies to help close the funding gap. They say the two-thirds vote of approval required by Proposition 13 is unlikely, particularly because only about 20% of Peninsula households send children to the public schools in the 10,500-student system.

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The low percentage is attributed largely to the high cost of homes, which tends to bar new families with school-age children. Many families already living on the Peninsula send their children to private schools.

Board President Martin S. Dodell, the only incumbent seeking reelection, is the lone advocate of exploring the possibility of a special parcel tax. He says the proposal, put forth by the outgoing board, could could win support “if the community fully understands our plight and the importance of good schools to property values and our life style.”

The other candidates also favor a drive to gain community support, but generally expect that only voluntary help will be forthcoming. Several of the candidates say the new board will first have to do some fence-mending with residents upset by school closures and the district’s efforts to find a permanent home for its continuation high school.

After several costly legal battles with Rolling Hills and with a group in the Margate area of Palos Verdes Estates, the board decided last month to locate the school at the closed La Cresta site in Rolling Hills. The Margate group feared that the facility for teen-agers with special education needs would be placed in their neighborhood at the closed Margate Intermediate School.

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In the election, Dodell, who chose to run for an unexpired two-year term instead of seeking reelection to his four-year post, is matched against Cindy Miller, a former librarian and wife of attorney Norman Miller.

Cindy Miller, 43, of Rolling Hills, says her concerns about the district’s plans for the Dapplegray Intermediate School, where her son is a student, led to her decision to run for the board.

“I started attending board meetings regularly and that opened my eyes to a lot of other problems besides Dapplegray,” she said. “The more I learned, the more convinced I became that the community had to become more involved in the decisions that were being made.”

Miller said she agreed that the new board will have to redouble its efforts to gain more support from Sacramento and the community. Beyond that, she said, there will have to be closer scrutiny of how the available money is being spent.

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She criticized expenditures for equipment in the current budget and said she would rather see the money spent for “educating our children.”

Dodell said he views the next two years as “the most critical in the district’s 25-year history” and said he can provide the “continuity and experience that the new board will need to make the transition and assume its new responsibilities as successfully as possible.”

Dodell and his wife, Lora, a homemaker who is active in the PTA, have two children in district schools.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the six candidates for the three four-year terms, which will go to the top three vote-getters:

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- Myrna M. Ahmed, 41, of Palos Verdes Estates, is a housewife and former nutritionist with two school-age children. Like several other candidates, she says she was drawn into district politics by specific board decisions and then became interested in the overall problems of the district.

She and her husband, Nazeer Ahmed, a program manager at Hughes Aircraft Co., were active in opposing the closure of the Margate school in their neighborhood and a later proposal to locate the continuation high school there.

Mrs. Ahmed also was active in the fund-raising effort that helped restore the instrumental music instruction program that had been cut from this year’s budget.

Besides lobbying harder in Sacramento for more funding, the new board should look for ways to cut waste and administrative expense, she said. She favors a series of forums after the election so the new board “can listen carefully to the concerns and ideas of teachers and the community.”

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- Sally Burrage, 45, of Rancho Palos Verdes, said she has become familiar with district affairs through attending board meetings for 18 years and serving on a “whole lot of committees.” She and her husband, Darrell Burrage, a vice president of Marie Callender restaurants, have a 4-year-old son and two grown children in college.

“I always knew I would run for the board some day,” she said. “With a little boy soon to start kindergarten, and after all my involvement in the schools as a volunteer, it’s logical for me to take the step now.”

Burrage said she supported the outgoing board’s decisions, “even though I might not always agree privately. I felt they had information nobody else had and they did what they thought was best for the schools.”

- Eric Engstrom, 19, of Rancho Palos Verdes, graduated from Rolling Hills High School last year and is studying business and political science at USC. His father is attorney Jack Engstrom.

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Engstrom said his youth should not hinder his first bid for public office, especially among his contemporaries and teachers. He said his years in local schools, including periods as a teaching assistant and head of the district’s audio-visual department, had given him an insider’s view of the system’s problems.

Teacher morale is low, he said, largely because they feel discouraged by inadequate pay and a “sense of alienation from the administration.” He said the “middle majority” of students, which he defined as the range between high and low academic achievers, also needs more attention.

- Brenton F. Goodrich, 43, of Rancho Palos Verdes, is an attorney. He and his wife Sharon, a homemaker, have two children in the Point Vicente Elementary School.

He became a familiar figure at board meetings during the Margate controversy and offered a number of detailed alternatives to the actions finally taken by the trustees.

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In dealing with district financial and other problems, he said, the new board should make more use of the “great pool of talent on the Peninsula.” Blue-ribbon committees could “act as an extension of the board” in gathering information and promoting a consensus before decisions with community-wide consequences are made, he said.

Goodrich said he is confident the four-city community served by the district would provide more voluntary financial and other support for the schools “if people are properly approached.”

Besides curriculum improvements and some “streamlining” of the district’s staff, Goodrich said he would like to see a more extensive effort made to “drug-proof our kids.” He said a self-esteem program used at the Point Vicente school might provide the model.

- Marlys Kinnel, 51, of Palos Verdes Estates, has been active for many years in school and community volunteer work. She and her husband, John Kinnel, own agricultural properties and they have a son in a local high school and a daughter who has gone on to college.

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Kinnel, who is completing a two-year term as districtwide PTA president, said she has supported the current board while not taking a “yes position” on its decisions. She is the only candidate to express caution about selling surplus school sites.

“I’m conservative fiscally,” she said. “I would want to see a long-range plan before disposing of any more of our assets.”

She said her “big thing is communicating with people.” That ability, along with her knowledge of district affairs, would make her an effective board member, she said.

- Jeffrey N. Younggren, 38, of Rancho Palos Verdes, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor of medical psychology at UCLA. He and his wife Laurie, a homemaker, have two children in local schools and he has served on a number of committees and commissions.

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Younggren also expressed concern about “teaching over the heads” of the district’s average students and said he favored more programs aimed at curbing drug abuse, starting at the elementary level.

Besides working with the district’s “difficult financial situation,” Younggren said he would like to help eliminate the “adversarial” relationships that he said the district has fallen into with Peninsula city governments.

“With three or four new members on the board, I believe we will be able to get a fresh start on solving our problems,” he said. “If I’m one of those elected, I believe I could make a difference.”


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