Plan to Close W. Covina High School Draws Fire

Times Staff Writer

Fernando Molina seemed to sum up the feelings of hundreds of others crowded into the West Covina High School auditorium.

"Nobody wants to go to a 10-year reunion for a school that doesn't exist anymore," the West Covina High senior said last week.

Molina was among about 350 angry students, parents, teachers and others who rallied against a proposal to close West Covina High School and merge the student body with its cross-town rival as a cost-cutting measure.

Like many of the others, Molina argued that if any school must be closed, it should be Edgewood High School, not West Covina.

Some speakers also voiced concerns about the social problems of merging two student populations.

"I'm thinking how a rivalry that's been built up so many years will become palsy-walsy overnight," said parent Pat Micangioli.

But Diane Babashoff, whose daughter is a freshman cheerleader at West Covina High, saw such rivalries as "petty" compared to the district's financial straits.

"Put rivalry aside," Babashoff said after the meeting. "We're going to have to make changes. When you consider the problems we're up against, talk of rivalry gets quite silly." Earlier in the week, the district took under consideration proposals to close West Covina High along with four other schools. West Covina would become either a middle school or a junior high school.

Hollencrest and Willowood intermediate schools and Cortez and Merced elementary schools might also be closed under the proposals by the School Use Planning Committee.

Would Save Money

The closures could save the district up to $1.7 million, less any costs restructuring would entail, according to the committee. The district had to borrow $3.3 million from the state to cover a $2.6-million deficit and operating expenses. The closures, plus $1 million in other cuts, are needed to stay out of the red, school officials said.

The district has set a Feb. 9 deadline to decide which schools to close.

At Wednesday's meeting, set by the district to explain the proposed closures, Leslie Etheridge, a junior at West Covina, argued that the public should decide which high school to close. Like most of the others, she pleaded with school officials to keep West Covina High School open.

"I know it's an emotional issue," said Bill Gardner, a West Covina High shop teacher. He argued that the committee recommendation overlooked his school's better shop facilities. "I would go to Edgewood in a minute if it was as good. As far as we're concerned, West Covina High School is the place to be."

Critic Applauded

Some speakers criticized school officials for the financial crisis. Alicia Prieto drew thunderous applause when she suggested that the district office be closed and sold to cover expenses.

"The problem . . . originated at the district level," she said. "Let them feel the pinch."

Poor management and excessive expenditures for developing computer software have been blamed for the deficit. After the crisis came to light, three school board incumbents lost their seats in November.

District officials said they expected debate over the proposed closure of West Covina High to become heated.

"Anytime the subject is as painful as this, you're going to have a lot of emotional response," said Jane D. Gawronski, superintendent of the West Covina Unified School District. "What we heard was mostly concerned people speaking from the heart.

"You don't take something out of the community without them taking it personally," said Gawronski, who was hired after former Supt. Donald Todd resigned in June.

Danny Grunwald, a junior at West Covina High, told the officials at Wednesday's meeting that students should have a say in the outcome.

"I want you to recognize us, find out what we think, what our opinions are," Grunwald said. "I don't think an effort was made to ask the students" about the closures.

'Ideas Can Change'

"They (board members) are the ones who will make the final decision," he said, "but if we are organized (in speaking out), their ideas can change." Molina, the senior from West Covina High, suggested making Edgewood High the middle school because it is next to Willowood and could be more easily converted.

Parent Fred Fowlkes questioned the district's motives for combining the high schools.

"I have an idea that the decision is coming down to dollars," he said, adding: "What price for education?"

West Covina High Principal Doug Koel urged the crowd not to blame the three new school board members elected in November for past problems.

"If we have one (high) school, we'll go with one school," he said. "Even though some of us may be unhappy with the prospect of consolidating schools, some good could come of it."

Varied Education

Members of the School Use Planning Committee have said merging schools will help the district offer a better and more varied education to students, who will no longer attend under-utilized schools. The high schools, which are operating at half capacity, cannot offer a full-range curriculum, according to the committee.

For some advanced-placement classes, students have to be bused between campuses, Koel said.

School closures alone, however, will not solve the district's financial problems, said Joe Mount, the newly elected school board president. He said the district may also have to curtail or eliminate busing, school lunches, counseling, libraries, fine arts programs and after-school sports.

Some speakers wondered what will happen to their children if the board decides to cut sports and busing.

"They come to high school not only to get an education but to express themselves athletically," said Fred Robles, a West Covina parent who teaches in the San Gabriel School District.

Kathy Carlson was concerned that her 14-year-old son might have to ride his bike or walk four miles to attend high school on the Edgewood campus.

"I feel they have to provide busing because many of the students don't drive," she said.

Lollie Bergman, a 33-year district volunteer who has served on several school-related organizations, told the crowd that a hard look at the cold facts was long overdue. Since the district's schools can accommodate 15,000 students but enrollment has fallen to about 8,000, school closures are a necessity, she said.

"There is no way in God's green Earth that this district will ever make (15,000) again," she said.

Earlier, Cathy Jones, who has a child in the third grade at Merlinda Elementary School, also pleaded with the crowd to face financial facts.

"What happens if we can't repay the loan? Have any of you thought about that?" she asked.

After the meeting, Mount, school board member William J. Brutocao and some of the School Use Planning Committee members said they were pleased with the initial response.

"Most of the people haven't had a chance to read the report, so they're going with emotions," said Michael Madison, a committee member and a senior at Edgewood High School. "I think they should realize what's going on--the situation we're in is a crisis; it's not going away by doing nothing."

Noting the strong concern voiced for transportation, athletics and fine arts, Brutocao said a well-run consolidation could provide some of the money to save those programs.

"If we keep the status quo, then a lot of these things will have to be cut out," he said.

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