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200 Protest Plan to Phase Out School

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than 200 parents and students chanting “Save our school!” and carrying signs picketed in front of Fred Newhart Elementary on Thursday to protest a district boundary proposal that would phase out the elementary school.

“I hope this will prove to the district that there are more than 10 angry parents,” said protester Lisa Goldman, a member of Parents for Accountable School Board Management, recently formed to fight the proposal.

“We don’t want to leave,” added Newhart fourth-grader Paul Breazeale, who protested with friends before rushing off to class.

In January, James A. Fleming, superintendent of Capistrano Unified School District, unveiled 32 districtwide boundary change recommendations designed to relieve overcrowding at many district schools, especially at the elementary and middle schools.

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Fleming said several factors contributed to the crowded conditions, including the district’s rapid growth, with enrollment up 7.5% from last year, and participation in Gov. Pete Wilson’s class size reduction program.

Since Fleming introduced his recommendations to school board trustees in January, the district has held a public hearing and school meetings to discuss the proposals with parents. So far, his proposals have received mixed reactions.

“I fully understand how the parents feel,” Fleming said Thursday. “My heart goes out to them.”

Fleming proposed that the school be merged with Fred Newhart Middle School, with which it currently shares a campus, to form one sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade middle school.

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The larger facility would allow sixth-graders to be integrated into the middle school format and help ease crowded conditions faced at Newhart Middle School, which is the district’s only middle school in Mission Viejo.

Under the proposal, about 430 students in kindergarten through fourth grade would be bused to either Castille or Philip J. Reilly elementary schools in Mission Viejo, which are currently underused, according to Fleming.

Newhart’s approximately 70 fifth-graders would have the option of remaining at the school for the 1997-98 school year before moving to the middle school campus as sixth-graders.

The phase-out program would convert most of the site to a middle school next year, with full conversion completed by the 1998-99 school term. Officials estimate it will cost $60,000 to modify the elementary campus to meet the middle school’s needs.

“I recognize how painful and difficult it is, but I need to consider the district as a whole,” Fleming said. “Change is always difficult.”

Newhart parents have also submitted an alternative plan to district trustees. Their plan calls for researching financing options, including tapping into the district’s Mello-Roos funds and possible community fund-raising efforts, to enable the construction of permanent classrooms at the middle school and allow the elementary to stay open as well.

“I don’t think the closing of a neighborhood school is the solution,” said parent Dana Ortiz, who has two children at Newhart. “Our elementary school can remain open . . . we have space.”

District trustees are scheduled to vote on the final boundary recommendations at a Feb. 24 board meeting. It will start at 7 p.m. and be held at the district office, 32972 Calle Perfecto in San Juan Capistrano.

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