A plan that could force some students of predominantly white elementary schools to transfer to a school where half the students are Latino is being considered by the Brea Olinda Unified School District in a controversial effort to ease campus overcrowding.
Under the proposal, about 100 students from Arovista, Fanning and Mariposa elementary schools could be transferred, most going to Laurel Elementary School, where some parents are refusing to place their children because of its ethnic makeup, district administrators said.
Although only a small number of the district's 5,458 students would be directly affected by the plan, administrators say the controversy exemplifies the heated debate that often arises when districts begin changing attendance boundaries to balance school enrollments.
"The honest people have said, 'Quite frankly, I don't want my kids exposed to the Hispanic element" at Laurel,' Assistant Supt. Gary D. Goff said.
The district "could never accomplish balancing the school ethnically," Goff said. But the Board of Education would like to make the district's nine schools reflect its ethnic breakdown, he said.
Among the district's schoolchildren, 68% are white, 18% are Latino, 8% are Asian and 2% are black, according to officials. At Laurel, more than 160 of the 322 students are Latino, Goff said.
"We've come a long way as far as (appreciating cultural diversity) over the years, and yet in Brea Olinda, we haven't come very far," Supt. Edgar Z. Seal said. "We want to build a diverse community at all our schools, but parents don't want to take their children to Laurel, where the (Latino student population) has become the majority, because they feel that it's a Mexican school, and that is unfortunate."
At a Board of Education meeting last week, more than a dozen parents whose children could be sent to Laurel said their concerns center around the safety and education of their children, not on racial issues.
"I don't have a problem with who my kid goes to school with," parent Chris Joslan said. "I don't think it's a racist issue. I think it's a safety issue. In my eyes, it's all about safety."
Joslan and other parents said they believe students who walk to and from Laurel could be in danger if they have to cross major streets. Some parents said the school does not provide the same "educational opportunities" that the rest of the district's schools offer.
But district officials point out that no student has been hit by a car while walking to or from Laurel. And Seal said the district has spent more money on educational programs at Laurel in the past few years than at any other elementary school in the district. Class sizes are smaller as well, he said. The classes at Laurel average 29 students, while the more crowded schools average 32.
Marina Villarreal, whose two daughters attend Laurel, said criticism of the school is unwarranted.
"My girls are receiving the same education at Laurel that the kids in other Brea Olinda schools do," she said. "I don't feel they are academically deprived at all. The class sizes are small, the teachers are excellent and my kids are not just a file there. They are known as individuals by the whole staff."
Margie McMillan, who served as Laurel's Parent Teacher Assn. president last year and whose two children graduated from Laurel, agreed.
The critics "can call (their concerns) whatever they want, but I'm calling it racism and bigotry," she said.
Laurel Principal Tim Harvey, who also is principal of Olinda Elementary School and served as Fanning's principal for 10 years until last June, said Laurel is not lacking academically.
"I'm very comfortable with Laurel, safety- and academic-wise," he said. "There's no difference in standards or programs here than at other district schools. We don't have anything less than any of the other schools. But I understand parents' concerns about change and I invite them to call me and visit."
Brea Olinda school board members considered changing attendance boundaries five years ago but decided against the move after parents complained, Goff said. Now, it has been eight years since the district last changed the boundaries. The new shift is necessary because of current and future residential development that has and is expected to overcrowd Mariposa and Arovista schools, he said.
The district would like to solve overcrowding problems by changing boundary lines so each of its six elementary schools ends up with between 450 and 650 students.
Under the plan recommended by the School Boundaries/Future Growth Committee, about 60 students from Mariposa Elementary would be transferred to Fanning, and Fanning would transfer about 30 students to Laurel. In addition, about 20 Arovista students would go to Laurel.
Parents say forcing the children to attend another school under the proposed boundary changes will be "disruptive and traumatic." But proponents of the boundary changes say many parents have taken their children out of Laurel because Latino students have become the majority there.
Denise Prebeg, an opponent with three children at Fanning, said she is outraged and offended by people who call such parents racist.
"I have no prejudice in my body. My children have friendships (at Fanning). . . . I do not want to uproot my children from their familiar school," Prebeg said.
"Boundary changes are very emotional," school board member Lynn Doucher said. "Kids get attached to schools, and nobody wants to disrupt a child's life. . . . But we have to have breathing room at each school, and that's where the problem comes in.
"Do we look into the future and take care of the (overcrowding) problems now?" she added. "There are lots of modifications we could consider, but no one on the school board has made up their mind."
A board vote on the boundary change proposal is expected sometime after a public hearing April 18.