Parents Fight School Add-Ons : Education: Proposal is made to reorganize area schools instead of building more rooms to handle anticipated overcrowding at Warner Elementary.


Parents at Warner Elementary School in Westwood want out of a deal they made last year to add portable classrooms to their cramped playground because there is space available at other Westside schools.

In a recent meeting with Mark Slavkin, the Westside school board member, a group of irate parents accused the district of overstating the imminence of the overcrowding crisis. Because of the expected crisis, the district last year enacted a policy to require schools to increase enrollment by 23% over the next three years.

The parents at Warner say they should be allowed to re-evaluate their decision to add the portable classrooms in light of the actual enrollment this fall.

They cited recently published reports that there are 100 extra teachers at schools on the Westside and in the Valley who were hired in the expectation of a flood of students that failed to materialize. The extra teachers were hired under the Capacity Adjustment Program, a plan to find seats for students from overcrowded schools.

Although the district did see the overall increase of 15,000-plus students that it expected this fall, distribution of those students was not as anticipated. An increase of another 30,000 students is predicted districtwide in the next two years.

The Warner parents are seeking a "stay of execution," as one of them put it, on the expensive bungalow plan to give the district time to study another approach to solving the overcrowding problem.

Under the alternate approach, called reconfiguration, all the schools whose students matriculate to University High School, including Warner, would band together to make room for the required 23% increase. Sixth-grade classes would move to the junior high school campuses and ninth grade would become part of high school, leaving space at the elementary school.

The Palisades Complex of schools elected the reconfiguration plan for next year, which was available to them because there were enough empty seats at the junior and senior high levels to make the plan work.

Whether that option would be available to the University Complex is still under study.

Slavkin agreed to look into it and promised the bungalows would not go in until he met with parents again. Construction crews were due at Warner next month to make way for the portable classrooms, which a district official said would cost about $300,000. But Slavkin warned the parents not to expect the board to rescind its mandate to make way for the new wave of students.

Board President Jackie Goldberg was not optimistic either. "I'm sympathetic that people do not want things to change," she said, but "the alternatives do not exist to give them their choice."

Warner, on Holmby Avenue north of Wilshire Boulevard, was one of 109 schools tapped to increase enrollment this year. The school was chosen in part because of its relatively large Anglo population. That makes it one of the dwindling number of places in the district where court-ordered integration ratios can be met, causing some of the parents to claim they are being penalized for the community's support of public education. They say that like many other Westsiders, they could have chosen to abandon the district in favor of private schools.

"We have worked so hard to keep our community people here," said Pam Siegel, PTA co-president.

Goldberg rejected the parents' assertion. "Give me a break," she said. "How are they penalized? By giving kids in the district a place to go to school in the same (place) their kids attend?"

When Warner was mandated to increase in size this year, the community saw two alternatives to accomplish the task: cram three bungalows on their already small campus or become the first Westside school to adopt a multitrack year-round school plan, a staggered schedule in use in other district areas.

"Multitrack would have destroyed Warner as a community school," said PTA co-President Carol Ambrose, a UCLA law professor.

The parents opted for bungalows, despite a lack of space and the need to shrink the teachers' parking lot where cars were already double-parked. Parking in the surrounding neighborhood of million-dollar-plus homes is by permit only.

But this fall they discovered that nearby schools, such as Kenter Canyon, had some classes with about 25 students because of the extra teachers hired in anticipation of an influx of new students. Although the expected flood did not materialize, the extra teachers will stay in place until February, when they may be reassigned.

At Warner, classes have as many as 36 or 37 students in one room, with extra floating teachers bringing down the pupil-to-teacher ratio to 32.5, according to the principal.

Los Angeles Unified School District administrator Gordon Wohlers, who ran the CAP program until his recent appointment as assistant to new school Supt. Bill Anton, said there are a number of reasons for the disparities in the numbers.

In an effort to streamline the busing program, sending and receiving schools are being paired, replacing the scattershot approach in which one overcrowded school might send its students to several locations throughout the district. That approach made it difficult to minimize travel time, and schools receiving busloads of children complained of a lack of continuity and no chance to build relationships with the schools sending students.

As a result of the new plan, some schools did not receive as many students as others this fall. But Wohlers said the numbers will even out over the next few years. He noted that Westside parents and their board member, Slavkin, favored this change in the busing patterns.

According to Warner Principal Jeff Felz, enrollment at the school is now 766, up 120 from last year. Seventy of the new students are from the neighborhood while 50 of them are being bused from overcrowded schools. In all, about 163 students each day arrive at the school by bus from overcrowded schools, most from Trinity Street School at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Main Street, which is paired with Warner.

A second factor in the disparity in numbers is the increasing number of overcrowded schools that went to a staggered year-round schedule that enables parents to keep their children closer to home, rather than traveling hours on a bus each day. Goldberg and Slavkin said the board endorses that option, since the goal is to keep as many children off the bus as can be accommodated.

And, Wohlers said, the districtwide mandate to accommodate 23% more students is a three-year plan. It is irrational, he said, to fill each available seat on the Westside before putting in bungalows where they will surely be needed in the next few years.

"The kids haven't all come in yet to fill up the Westside schools, thank God," Wohlers said. "You can't add housing at the same time the kids come."

Wohlers said he is sensitive to keeping community members in the schools because it is important to their success. But, he said, "we have children riding over an hour one way on the bus right now, when they could be riding 30 minutes."

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