Alhambra Candidates Debate Solutions to School Crowding

Times Staff Writer

Despite problems caused by overcrowding and cultural differences, Alhambra school board member Phyllis J. Rutherford got no argument at a candidates forum last week when she referred to the district and its board as among the best in the state.

But four other candidates at the forum still insisted that they could best solve the problems.

An assistant principal, a police detective, a retired police officer, the president of the Chinese-American PTA of Southern California, an educator and a city councilman are vying for three seats on the 5-member board. The district covers Monterey Park, Alhambra, Rosemead and San Gabriel.

Two board members--Alhambra's Ron Apperson, who is an attorney with the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Richard Amador, a Monterey Park businessman--are not seeking reelection next month. Each has served three 4-year terms.

The candidates at the forum, sponsored by the San Gabriel chapter of the League of Latin American Citizens, differed only slightly in their support for bilingual education and how they believe students should be encouraged to respect one another's cultural backgrounds. And the five (candidate John W. Gillis was absent due to a death in his family) indicated no major philosophical differences and sold themselves basically on their qualifications.

Overcrowded Schools

But they were the most animated when they spoke of overcrowded schools.

For at least three years, the board has debated whether to build an additional high school to supplement the three regular high schools and an alternative high school. The board has decided unanimously to expand the three regular high schools, rather than build another one under plans that would have forced many homeowners to sell their property for a school site.

Under current plans the district will acquire more than 14 houses to expand Alhambra High School and another house to enlarge San Gabriel High School. In addition, some businesses will have to be acquired.

"I'd hate like heck to lose my house," said candidate Ronald N. Hirosawa, 44, an assistant principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District. But the Monterey Park resident said the school system needs to provide secure parking for students whose vehicles now crowd the neighborhood streets around the high schools.

J. Parker Williams, 51, a 3-term Alhambra city councilman, said laws ensure that bulldozers won't come in the middle of the night, forcing property owners "to flee in your pajamas."

'A Sad Issue'

Still, Stephen R. Perry, a 25-year-old Alhambra police detective, called it a "scary issue, a sad issue, the taking of people's homes." He noted that when he was a student at San Gabriel High School, enrollment was 2,400; today it's 3,250.

Robert K. Kwan, a 53-year-old Monterey Park resident, said that besides solving the overcrowding he wants to reduce class sizes.

The 17 schools of the district are bulging with 20,000 students whose ancestries reflect a diversity of cultures.

The backgrounds of some of the candidates reflect the changing district, where today more than half the students are of Asian ancestry and more than a third are Latinos.

Kwan, who was born in Canton, China, and grew up in the Philippines, said his concerns stem partly from his involvement as president of the Chinese-American PTA of Southern California. "We have so many new immigrants coming here and they don't know the American system," said Kwan, an investments adviser.

His three children graduated from Alhambra schools during the 15 years he has lived in the district. Over the years he has worked on school committees, including a Mark Keppel High School advisory group he now leads.

Hirosawa, a Japanese-American who grew up in Boyle Heights which he described as a melting pot, called himself a "fired-up parent" who became a candidate because of concerns about the education of his two children, who attend Monterey Highlands School.

Education Background

His background as a junior high school administrator and former math teacher, Hirosawa said, make him well-suited to the board position. "You really don't know what's happening (in the schools) until you're out there wading in the water," he said.

Perry cites his regular attendance at board meetings for the last 2 1/2 years as a qualification. As a police officer, he has worked in the schools with anti-drug programs. His campaign literature lists his authorship of a $130,000 grant for the city's DARE (Drug Awareness and Resistance Education) program.

"I was born and raised in the community, and now I feel it is my turn to give something back to a school system that has helped shape my life," Perry says in a campaign brochure.

At the end of her first term on the board, Rutherford, 40, notes that she "helped give birth" to the district's bilingual education program. A UCLA graduate, she works for the Los Angeles County Office of Education as a teacher for severely disturbed children.

As a single parent, she said she is sensitive to others who must work and maintain a family. One of her daughters graduated from Alhambra High and a second daughter is a senior there now.

Williams is ending 12 years on the Alhambra City Council. Under council rules, he must retire at the end of his third term this year. He would serve on the school board, he said, with the same enthusiasm he has shown on the council. "I've done my best to do the best for everybody," Williams said of his time on the council.

Managing Finances

Long a volunteer coach of cross-country teams, Williams said as a board member he would try "to make sure every class, every activity is available to everybody." Williams, who operates his own business development firm, said he is particularly concerned that students learn to manage their own finances.

In his election statement, Gillis, a retired police lieutenant from the Los Angeles Police Department, said he is "acutely aware of the problems which plague our schools." He has lived in the district for 26 years, and two of his children graduated from Alhambra High.

Gillis, who has a master's in public administration from the University of Southern California, said his experience in law enforcement and with community organizations has given him "the necessary insight" to address the problems of the school system.

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