School Closure Proposal Fell on Deaf Ears in '80

Times Staff Writer

The financially pinched school district, now grappling with a recommendation to close up to five schools, "virtually ignored" a similar proposal eight years ago.

Some members of a 1980 task force that recommended closing schools say the current fiscal crisis probably would not have been averted if the district had acted then. But the task force members, including two who are now on the school board, say that by putting off the emotional issue of school closures, the district ensured years of precarious finances and set the stage for the crisis.

"I think people didn't have the guts to say what needed to be done in the district then," said Kathy Jones, a member of the 1980 task force and a former school board president who was defeated with two other incumbents last November.

"Had we closed schools, we would not be in the same financial position we are in today," agreed Tim Irwin, a current school board member who served on the 1980 task force as a parent. "We have been operating with too many schools for the past eight years . . . spending more than we needed to," he said.

Another member of the task force and the current board, Karen Welts, also said the deficit crisis was worsened by the failure to close schools earlier, which would have put the district in better financial shape.

"What happened last year was a result of not taking these steps earlier," Welts said.

The 1980 task force was formed to examine the district's decline in enrollment from a high of 14,000 students to 8,800. Since then, enrollment has dropped to about 8,100.

"Certainly, operating schools below capacity is going to cause a drain on your budget," Welts said. "(Closing schools) would have put us in a better financial position all along."

At a meeting earlier this month when the district's School Use Planning Committee recommended closing up to five schools, Irwin told his colleagues that the 1980 recommendation had been "virtually ignored" by district officials.

He urged the board to carefully consider the current recommendations. District officials have said they will decide by Feb. 9 what schools, if any, will be closed.

The district is considering the closures to help pay back a $3.3-million bailout loan from the state and to cut costs. School officials say $2.7 million must be pared from the 1988-89 budget to avoid another deficit. Last week, officials discussed the proposed closures at several heated town meetings where large numbers of residents voiced their opposition.

In both of the committee's two cost-cutting recommendations, the district would close West Covina High School and make it a middle school or junior high school. Edgewood High School would be renamed and house both high school student bodies, beginning in September.

In one recommendation, the district would also close Hollencrest and Willowood intermediate schools and Cortez and Merced elementary schools. The other plan calls for closing Hollencrest, Willowood and Cortez.

The recommendations could save up to $1.7 million, minus any costs involved in restructuring the district, the committee said.

The 1980 task force report recommended that one high school and one junior high school be closed to restructure the district's upper grades. No specific schools were named.

Mike Miller, a member of the current committee, was struck by the similarity of the proposals.

"What our committee concluded . . . had already been said in that (1980) report," he said. "It was quite apparent that we've had under-utilization of these facilities for some time."

The district says both high schools are operating at 50% of capacity and the elementary schools at about 70%.

Irwin, Jones and others blamed a number of factors for the district's inaction on the 1980 recommendations, including staunch resistance from the community.

"When the community heard about the (new) configuration, the pressures came to bear on the school board and the staff . . . and they turned off the committee's work," Jones said. "It was a political issue."

The community was not ready to face the pain of consolidating schools, said Doug Koel, principal of West Covina High School, who was a member of the 1980 committee while serving as assistant principal of Hollencrest Intermediate.

"The community outcry against (consolidating) came into play, and it was just unfortunate that it didn't take place," Koel said.

While conceding that community opposition was strong in 1980, others blame the district administration for killing the proposal.

"The more schools open, the better it is for the administrative hierarchy," said Lollie Bergman, a 1980 committee member and longtime district activist.

Bergman charged that none of the administrators wanted to confront the issue, preferring to maintain the status quo .

"Nobody would bite the bullet," she said.

Former Supt. Donald F. Todd, who headed the district in 1980 and retired two months after the deficit was discovered last year, could not be reached for comment.

Irwin and Jones, who charged Todd and other administrators with misleading the school board during last year's crisis, said unwillingness to confront consolidation was typical of the management style criticized later by state-mandated consultants.

Bergman said some administrators, including Todd, actively lobbied against the proposals in 1980.

But Dorothy Grinstead, a school board member ousted last November, said administrators took a passive stance.

"It was more 'let sleeping dogs lie,' " said Grinstead, another member of the 1980 group. "There just wasn't support. When you don't actively push something, it's not like you're against it, but it doesn't go through. . . ."

One member of the 1980 task force disagreed with its recommendation that some schools be closed.

West Covina football coach Tim Brancheau said that the district embraced the report then but that the timing was wrong. Brancheau, who said he resigned from the task force in protest, argued that the idea failed because only a few of the 44 members actually backed the proposal. "It was only initiated by two or three people who had an ax to grind," he said. "I'm not sure that closing one of the schools would save that much money. I'm still not.

"If you could save a million by closing one school, it would have been done a long time ago," he said.

But Jones said the recommendation followed the thoughts of a majority of the task force.

"It was a strong consensus of all the people who were there at the end," she said. "Some people dropped by the wayside."

Some 1980 group members see school closures as a foregone conclusion. Despite current community opposition, they say, the district has little leeway, given declining enrollment and the state's directive to balance the budget.

"I think this board will be more responsive" to economic needs, Irwin said, and not "cave in to public pressure."

Another current board member, William J. Brutocao, said things have changed since 1980.

"Perhaps the events that have happened since then have made people more receptive to a change," said Brutocao, who was elected with the new school board majority in November. Brutocao, Joe Mount and Elias Martinez unseated Jones, Grinstead and Elba Comeau.

"I think (the task force's proposal) illustrates that the problem has been with the district for quite some time," Brutocao said.

Bergman said the new school board majority knows what is needed to put the district on firm financial footing.

"The people on the board now recognize that there's going to be many unpopular decisions to make," she said. "They're not looking to win any popularity contests."

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