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Board of Education to Vote on School District Formation

Times Staff Writer

A State Board of Education committee on Thursday deadlocked 2-2 on whether to join in a staff recommendation that voters on the east side of the Palos Verdes Peninsula be allowed to decide whether they want to form a new school district.

The full board is scheduled to decide the issue at a meeting today.

The election has been sought by an east-side parents group since 1987, when the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District proposed closing Miraleste High School.

“The board has to vote it up or down,” said Tom Bogetich, executive director of the State Board of Education. Bogetich said a decision will require six votes--a majority of the 11-member panel--even though the board now has only nine members due to vacancies.

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Bogetich cautioned that if neither side attracts the necessary six votes, a decision on the thorny issue would be delayed.

If an election is called, the Board of Education also must decide whether to allow all 41,000 voters on the Peninsula to cast ballots or just the roughly 25% who live on the east side.

Thursday’s hearing at the state Department of Education attracted a standing-room-only crowd of about 200, including about 150 east-side supporters sporting buttons touting their cause. They occasionally interrupted the proceedings with applause, underscoring the intensity of feeling on the issue, which has divided the Peninsula for almost two years.

At the meeting, the two sides remained deeply split over the best way to maintain top-drawer local schools on the Peninsula. They seemed to agree on only one thing: that they now have high-quality schools that send 90% of high school graduates to college.

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After listening to arguments from both sides for more than an hour, Joseph D. Carrabino, a board member from Encino, said he was “not sure who to believe” about the cost of closing Miraleste and other issues debated Thursday. On a motion by Carrabino to delay the decision, the four-member administrative committee deadlocked 2-2.

Reaction to the vote was mixed.

Ted Gibbs, a spokesman for the parents group, maintained that his side “blew away” the opposition and said: “We’re all upbeat and we’re very hopeful and expect, based on the facts we presented here today, that we’ll get at least six votes tomorrow.”

Jeffrey Younggren, president of the Palos Verdes school board, said he was frustrated by the committee’s inaction. “I just think we need to get this thing resolved,” Younggren said.

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At issue is how best to educate youngsters on the Peninsula. The East Peninsula Education Council (EPEC) said a new, small district could maintain high educational standards for the children. Opponents, led by Younggren, countered that the current variety of classes and extracurricular programs can be sustained only by closing Miraleste and funneling its students to other schools.

The move to split the district has been prompted, in part, by dwindling enrollment. In 1976, the district reached a peak enrollment of 17,742 students, which has declined to about 9,300.

The current district encompasses Rolling Hills, Rolling Hills Estates, Rancho Palos Verdes and Palos Verdes Estates. The new eastern district would have about 1,700 students and include all of Rolling Hills, the eastern side of Rancho Palos Verdes and a portion of Rolling Hills Estates.

The east side group was formed in late 1987 after the school board, in an attempt to save money in the face of declining enrollment, voted to close Miraleste High. Ever since, the parents’ group has pursued a two-track strategy--the petition drive for an election and a lawsuit seeking an environmental impact report on the closure. In May, an appeals court ruled that the school district must consider potential environmental effects before it can close Miraleste.

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Thursday’s hearing opened with a presentation by Tony Turcotte, a field representative for the state Department of Education, who spelled out the staff position that the east-side petitions for an election meet the state’s legal requirements for forming a new district.

In urging an election, Turcotte cited the potential congestion on Peninsula roads from students being driven to schools on the west side of the Peninsula and noted that almost 55% of east-side voters signed petitions seeking the election.

In his report, Turcotte said the new district “would not significantly disrupt the quality of education being provided to the children in either school district.”

After his presentation, both sides were given 30 minutes to present their cases. The east-side group offered a slide show, a topographic map and presentations by students.

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“If Miraleste is closed, our students will be crammed into portables (classrooms) far from their homes,” said Gibbs.

Derek Mateo of Rancho Palos Verdes, a 10th-grader, testified that if Miraleste is shut down as a high school, students would be forced to drive along winding roads that are often shrouded in fog or along congestion-clogged arteries to reach school.

Supporters also said the district, with its $36-million-a-year budget, could afford to lose about 1,700 students to the new district.

But Supt. Jack Price argued that to split the district “is not in the best interest of the students.” Among other things, he questioned the contention by the Board of Education’s staff that splitting the district will not promote racial or ethnic discrimination or segregation. For example, he said the new district would be about 82% Anglo, compared to 69% for the existing district.

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School Board President Younggren termed the Miraleste closure the “best of all the bad options” to maintain educational quality on the Peninsula.

Patricia Maier, a Miraleste language teacher, said that because of declining enrollment, educational quality is suffering. She described teachers as frustrated and worn out.

While state politicians have shied away from jumping into the controversial local issue, Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando (R-San Pedro), who represents the Peninsula, sought to stake out an independent position.

Felando told the committee that he strongly supports a single district, but only if kindergarten through 12th grade are available to east-side students at an east-side school.

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“I don’t see any reason for this school (Miraleste) to be closed,” Felando said.


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