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High School Seeks to Flee Flight Path : Safety fears: Students on the Oxnard campus joke about being careful not to bounce volleyballs off passing planes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oxnard High School hopes to avoid a collision course with nearby Oxnard Airport by moving the school to another location not directly under the airport’s flight path.

District officials say the airport--about a third of a mile west of the Oxnard Union High School District offices on K Street--is too close for a safe, comfortable learning environment.

Although a plane has never crashed on school grounds, state officials agree with Oxnard’s concerns about safety for its 2,300 students.

The State Allocation Board voted unanimously last month to give top priority to the Oxnard Union High School District’s request to build a school out of harm’s way. Officials estimated such a construction project would cost more than $20 million.

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Ultimately, financing for the new school will depend on whether voters statewide approve a ballot initiative that would provide $800 million for school construction. If approved, the Oxnard Union High School District hopes to complete construction on a new high school in time for classes in the fall of 1993.

The seven-member State Allocation Board, which distributes funds for school construction and renovation, initially approved funding for a new Oxnard High last year. But the board’s action on April 26 gives the school’s request emergency status because of the air safety issue, said Urvan Rodriguez, a facilities consultant with the state Department of Education.

“We felt that the safety issue was sufficient to place them in that high priority category,” said Diane Kirkham, a special adviser to state Schools Supt. Bill Honig.

In a separate matter, the state board also voted to finance the first phase of construction for a second new school, which would be the district’s seventh high school. In that case, officials argued that new schools are needed in the district because the 11,200-student population is expected to double in the next 16 years.

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School and airport officials say although there has never been a plane accident on the campus, it may be just a matter of time before an accident occurs.

As for noise, the problem is worse for shop teachers and physical education instructors because those buildings and school playing fields lie directly under the flight path.

On a recent morning, on the north side of Oxnard High School’s campus, Janet Contreras and about 20 of her ninth-grade classmates sat on the basketball court, stretching before the start of gym class.

Overhead, twin-engine planes and small corporate jets came in low, about once every five minutes, before turning west to land at the Oxnard Airport.

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Contreras and her classmates appeared oblivious to the sound of the aircraft. Like most Oxnard High teachers and students, Contreras said she has learned to live with the noise--and with occasional thoughts about safety.

“It’s scary,” said Contreras, 15. “Sometimes I feel like they’re going to fall on top of the buildings.”

Some planes fly so low, said Assistant Principal Sandra Barbier, that she has seen pilots smiling and waving to students on the playing fields.

“One can’t be assured that a plane in trouble is going to be directly aligned with the runway,” Barbier said.

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Physical education instructor Donna Dente said students often joke about not hitting volleyballs too high for fear of bouncing them off a passing plane.

“Kids exaggerate a lot,” Dente said, “but sometimes the planes do come in pretty low, and they are pretty noisy.”

Principal Ruperto Cisneros said the school’s proximity to the airport “has been a concern of ours for many years. It’s not only an air safety hazard, our teachers are almost conditioned to stop teaching when the planes pass over.”

Supt. Bob Carter said district officials raised the issue of safety to the county Board of Supervisors as early as 1980.

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But according to airport administrator James O’Neill, the safety issue has only come up in recent years.

For more than 50 years, the school and the airport coexisted without complaints “until 2 1/2 years ago when we started hearing about the need to relocate the school,” O’Neill said.

Although some school officials said air traffic seems to have increased, O’Neill said it has actually declined from an average of about 220,000 flights a year in the late 1970s to about 140,000 flights a year now. He attributed the decrease to competition from the more strategically located Camarillo Airport, which opened in 1976, and to a general business decline in the aviation industry.

O’Neill also disputes that the runway is 1,700 feet from school grounds, as district officials contend. He said Oxnard High is actually about 3,600 feet from the airport.

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O’Neill acknowledged, however, that there is a potential for risk. He cited a change in state laws that would prohibit the school from being built in its present location in the airport’s flight path.

District officials project that the new school will be finished in time for the 1993-94 school year.

But some teachers don’t look forward to parting with the old school, which will be turned over to the state, possibly or lease or sale. Those funds will offset the cost of the new facility, officials said.

Wood shop instructor David Runyan, who has taught at Oxnard High School for 19 years, said even though he has to stop lecturing occasionally as planes pass overhead, he likes the old Oxnard High and will have some regrets in leaving it.

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“We have a really nice facility here,” Runyan said. “Our main concern is that the new school will be as nice as the one we have here.”


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