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Lennox School Board Votes to File Lawsuit Against Hawthorne

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lennox school board members Tuesday authorized a lawsuit against the City of Hawthorne, calling inadequate an environmental impact report that predicts the expansion of a city redevelopment area will have minimal effect on several South Bay school districts.

The school district would be the fifth in the last two months to file a claim against Hawthorne seeking compensation from the city’s Redevelopment Agency because of what they say is the substantial negative impact on enrollment and facilities posed by the redevelopment project.

The Lennox district said the redevelopment project would have a roller-coaster effect on enrollment. Initially with the razing of residences, it would drive down state compensation based on enrollment. But later, by attracting new residents, it would boost attendance. The Lennox district would like either money or a school site from Hawthorne to offset what it sees as the impact of the project.

Lennox board members approved the suit 4 to 0. District officials said a claim, the first step in litigation involving a municipality, would be filed by the end of the month.

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The four other school districts--El Camino Community College, Centinela Valley Unified, Lawndale and Hawthorne--filed a joint claim Dec. 20, officials from those districts said.

Hawthorne officials have not yet rejected the joint claim, but Wednesday said the arguments of the five school districts lack merit.

Bud Cormier, Hawthorne’s assistant director of redevelopment, said the redevelopment project, at worst, would have a minimal impact on the districts’ enrollment and so Hawthorne need not offer compensation.

Hawthorne’s entire redevelopment project encompasses 1,154 acres in the city’s northwestern quadrant. The area in question for Lennox school officials is 254 acres of land along Imperial Highway and nearby streets.

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Despite widespread opposition by residents, the Hawthorne City Council in early December approved an expansion of the redevelopment plan which included a portion of the Lennox school district. The area in the Lennox school district is between the Century Freeway and Imperial Highway, with Inglewood Avenue to the west and Prairie Avenue to the east.

If Hawthorne decides on commercial uses for this area, as it is leaning toward, Cormier said, the city would actually be relieving districts of over-enrollment problems.

“My quarrel is that I don’t think it is us that is causing over-enrollment and that we shouldn’t have to pay for it,” Cormier said.

However, Don Wickert, a consultant hired by the districts in the joint claim, said there would probably be long-term enrollment increases as new workers--and their families--move into the area.

Wickert said a commercial-industrial use for the area would eventually result in more than 13,000 new students for the four districts.

“You’re creating a tremendous influx of new people to the area,” said Wickert, who specializes in redevelopment issues relating to school districts. “That’s OK if that’s what the people want, but we feel redevelopment should be responsible for providing new schools.”

The districts are hoping to tap into a portion of the redevelopment project’s tax increment funds, which could provide much needed revenue for the financially strapped schools, officials said. Tax increment revenue is the difference between the taxes generated by a property before its inclusion in a redevelopment plan and revenue generated from improvements to that property during the life of the plan.

Lennox officials, who are grappling with record enrollment this year, argue that a change to commercial use would have a major impact on the school district’s finances, since revenue from the state is determined by a school’s average daily attendance.

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Bruce McDaniel, Lennox assistant superintendent for business, said the district could initially lose up to 250 students. “If we lose students, we are not always able to reduce expenses in the same time frame,” McDaniel said, adding that many of the district’s costs are fixed during the school year.

However, McDaniel also said this initial loss would be offset by long-term population growth, resulting in “roller-coaster” enrollment activity.

Lennox officials point to this year’s enrollment gains. The district’s enrollment, 5,700 students in October, was 4.5% higher than a year earlier. Except for a three-year period in the mid-1980s, enrollment has increased every year since 1974.

The recent enrollment increases are made more startling by the fact that almost no new housing has been built in the 1.25-square-mile community. Lennox actually lost housing because of construction of the Century Freeway.

And in anticipation of continued increases, attributed to a large influx of immigrants, Lennox officials would like Hawthorne to provide them another school site. However, Hawthorne officials have so far balked at any compensation, McDaniel said, forcing district officials to press their claim.

Under state redevelopment guidelines, a claim challenging the findings of an environmental impact report must be filed within 60 days of its adoption.


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