Cost-Cutters Urge Closing Some W. Covina Schools

Times Staff Writer

The financially strapped West Covina school district may close one of its two high schools and up to four other schools in an effort to cut expenses.

District officials said that some schools are under-utilized and that by consolidating operations the district can offer a greater variety of courses.

"I would hope that instead of being controlled by emotion and historical ties, everyone will remember that our students deserve the best education," said Mike Miller, community services division manager for the City of West Covina and a member of a special district committee that reported to the school board Tuesday.

The report urged the board to consider reorganizing the grade levels at some schools by eliminating both of the district's intermediate schools and establishing one middle school.

The district has been seeking ways to cut costs since it was forced to borrow $3.3 million from the state to cover both a $2.7-million deficit in the 1987-88 school year and operating expenses.

Anticipating possible adverse reactions, the district has scheduled nine town meetings over the next two weeks to discuss the proposal. At least one school board member and a senior administrator will attend each gathering.

By closing some schools, the district could save up to $1.7 million, minus any costs that restructuring would entail, the School Use Planning Committee reported.

The committee, made up of students, teachers, business people and parents, presented two closure plans. In each, West Covina High School would be closed, and all high school students would attend Edgewood High School. Edgewood's name would be changed, perhaps to West Covina Unified High School.

In the first proposal, Cortez and Merced elementary schools and Hollencrest and Willowood intermediate schools would be closed. The West Covina High School campus would become the district's middle school, serving grades six through eight. The remaining seven elementary schools would serve kindergarten through fifth grade. Elementary schools serve kindergarten through sixth grade.

In the second proposal, West Covina High School would house grades seven through nine, becoming a junior high school. Cortez, Hollencrest and Willowood would be closed, but Merced would remain open. Elementary schools would continue to serve kindergarten through sixth grade.

Committee members expressed a strong preference for the first recommendation, saying that the grade levels would work better and that this plan would save about $200,000 more than the second one.

A third option, which was presented but not endorsed by the committee, would salvage both high schools and use them for grades seven through 12. The eight remaining schools would be used for the elementary grades. Under this option, Cortez, Hollencrest and Willowood would be closed, while Merced would remain open. This option would save $856,000, but both high schools would operate well below capacity.

Miller and a majority of the committee members said the third option appears unworkable because too many grade levels would be lumped together.

By following either of the first two recommendations, committee members said, the district could offer students more varied classes and make better use of the school sites.

"We have been shortchanging our students, and we've been doing it for a number of years," Miller said.

At both the high school and elementary levels, Miller said, the district is wasting money because of limited use. Edgewood and West Covina are operating at less than 50% capacity, and the elementary schools are only 77% filled, he said.

"You don't run an efficient operation on that. We can no longer operate the way we were operating--at half capacity," Miller said in an interview before the meeting.

Courses Limited

Supt. Jane D. Gawronski said low enrollment at the high schools limits the number of courses that can be offered and hampers the students' education. For example, because there are too few students at Edgewood, students taking calculus have to be bused to West Covina, she said.

The first recommendation, Miller said, would increase enrollment at the remaining elementary and high school campuses to 95% of capacity.

Gawronski told the board that it must decide by Feb. 9 so that the administration can plan for the changes needed when the fall semester starts in September.

Pressure Anticipated

Committee members urged the board to resist anticipated pressure to keep some of the schools open, especially the two high schools.

"I feel that would be a disaster for the district," said Denise Simons, a committee member who is president of the Parent-Teachers Assn. at Cortez Elementary School.

Committee member Michael Madison, a senior at Edgewood, said he hopes the board realizes that the only option is to close one high school.

"Early on, I decided that one high school would be best for the district," he said, adding that he could not support the committee's third option, which would leave both high schools open.

Besides closing some schools, the district must find ways to save an additional $1 million to stay out of the red for the 1988-89 school year, Gawronski said.

'Already Austere'

"It's bleak," she said. "The grim part about it is the budget is already austere."

Gawronski suggested cuts in 11 areas that are not mandated by the state as part of the district's educational responsibilities. These include possible reductions in non-teaching and administrative staffs, cuts in busing and early retirement for some teachers and other employees.

Teachers' and board members' reactions to the committee's recommendations at the meeting were positive. Some teachers embraced them as a belated realization that schools are being under-utilized.

Stanley Oswalt, the trustee appointed by the state to oversee the district's recovery plan, said he prefers the committee's first recommendation.

'Financial Stability'

"It does the two things that I care most about," Oswalt said. "It takes care of the financial stability, and it cares for the students' education as a high priority."

In a district as financially strapped as West Covina, such a move is long overdue, he said.

Aware of the emotional impact of school closures, board members and district administrators said they will attend the town meetings to explain the proposed closures and listen to residents' suggestions on how they should be carried out.

"What it does is soften the blow," Gawronski said. "The purpose is to look at the fiscal background."

School board President Joe Mount said board members expect the meetings to be heated, but added that he is confident that the community will understand why some schools must be closed.

Mount, William J. Brutocao and Elias Martinez ousted three incumbents in November after the deficit was discovered. Mount said the newcomers expected to take some heat because of the district's financial crisis.

"We came into the election with our eyes open," he said. "Maybe it's worse than we first thought."

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