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Escondido School Truce Put on Hold

Times Staff Writer

Hope faded Thursday for opening a new Escondido elementary school in the fall as the City Council added conditions to an agreement under which it would drop its legal action against the Escondido Union Elementary School District.

The negotiated truce, arrived at Monday by a team of city and school district officials, was amended by the council in closed session Wednesday night. School trustees, also meeting in private, received the city’s reply and made a counteroffer, which has not yet been discussed by the council.

In essence, the city is seeking a pledge from the school board that the new school next to Kit Carson Park--and all future schools--not be opened until all off-site improvements are in place.

Streets Won’t Be Finished

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The elementary school district’s trustees seek to open the new 600-student facility by September. Improvements to the nearby streets cannot not be completed until November, according to city Public Works Director Dennis Wilson.

The City Council filed suit last month to halt the grade-school construction until an environmental study and traffic report are completed.

Under a negotiated agreement reached Monday between two council members, Mayor Doris Thurston and Councilman Jerry Harmon, and two board trustees, Board President James E. Lund and Sidney Hollins, the district agreed to pay for about $250,000 of the off-site improvements at the L. R. Green School at Las Posas Avenue and Bear Valley Parkway in return for the city’s dropping its suit.

School officials protested that the city was interfering with the district’s commitment to provide quality education by delaying the school. Crowding in the district’s schools has been underscored in recent weeks by the erection of signs on a number of grade-school campuses warning that enrollees might be forced to go to a school outside their attendance area because of crowded classrooms. Three schools already have been closed to all new enrollees because of crowding.

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Mayor Thurston defended the city’s stance as necessary. School officials may be committed to providing quality education, she said, but the city is responsible for providing a safe environment for its citizens.

Opening the Green school before street and traffic lights, sidewalks, turn lanes and other traffic-safety measures are finished would not be responsible, she said.

Early darkness during the fall means that students may be waiting for a bus to arrive after dusk, “and I, for one, don’t want them placed in an unsafe environment” of unfinished sidewalks or bulldozers and other equipment obscuring motorists’ views, she said.

In the past, the elementary district has built schools without consulting the city and without participating in the costs of widening streets and other off-site improvements required for the safety of the students, Thurston said.

The mayor said she plans to ask the City Council next week to initiate a task force of school and city officials to allow for coordinated planning at future school sites.

Randall Sterling, an attorney and spokesman for the district’s grade-school parents, said trustees resent the “laundry list” of improvements the city is demanding, some of which have no connection with traffic safety. Sterling said parents had appeared before the school board and City Council in an attempt to reach a compromise that would allow the school to open at the start of the fall term.

Parent pressure led to the Monday conference at which the proposed agreement was fashioned, he said.

Interim City Manager Ray Blair said Thursday that the school district’s latest counteroffer has been received by the city, but that no meeting time for City Council consideration of the document has been set.

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Councilman Harmon was out of the city Thursday, and another council member was expected to be unavailable over the weekend, meaning that next week is the earliest a special council meeting can be held. The council routinely meets at 8 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Trustee Hollins said he is still optimistic that a settlement of the dispute will be reached, so that the district can move ahead with construction of the much-needed school.

Hollins said the district now has 3,000 students in temporary classrooms and expects 1,200 to 1,400 more in the fall.

“We need about four new schools right now,” he said.


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