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Whether to Dismantle or Remake L.A. School District Still at Issue

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The battle lines grew a little sharper in 1998 over the future of public education in the San Fernando Valley.

As the movement to break away from the Los Angeles Unified School District and create independent northern and southern Valley districts gained momentum, a number of opponents remained adamant about keeping the district whole.

Supporters of the breakaway drive, called Finally Restoring Excellence in Education, say the smaller districts would provide greater local control over decision-making, increased access to administrators and better educational opportunities for all of Los Angeles’ 668,000 public school children.

The move to dismantle the nation’s second-largest school district won the endorsement in 1998 of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., the region’s most influential business group. VICA officials said that downsizing is necessary because the LAUSD has failed to teach students basic reading and math skills.

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The proposed Valley districts would include 100,000 students in the north and 90,000 in the south.

For their part, breakup opponents demanded that the behemoth LAUSD be restructured--not torn apart--to ensure a quality education for all public school students.

Mayor Richard Riordan announced plans in October to remake the Los Angeles school board by recruiting and supporting candidates to run against incumbents in the April election.

And a group of prominent business and community leaders, including Harold M. Williams, president emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Trust, began meeting late in the year. Members said they intend to craft recommendations on how to improve school district operations and release them in the weeks before Board of Education elections.

On another front, LAUSD officials announced a massive $1.82-billion school construction plan to stave off severe overcrowding in public schools. The proposal called for 51 new school buildings, including two high schools, two middle schools, three elementary schools and six primary centers--small campuses that serve the youngest students--to be built in the Valley by 2006.

To house the nearly 80,000 new students expected to enroll in the next decade, the district plans to add 458 portable classrooms to existing campuses and switch more schools to year-round schedules.

“We cannot wait one minute for this plan,” school board President Julie Korenstein said when the plan was announced in May. “This is the right thing, the important thing.”

Still, school board members acknowledged that they face challenges in working through several issues, including finances, land acquisition and the impact of school construction on neighborhoods.

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To cope with overcrowding in the meantime, LAUSD officials reopened Haynes Street School in West Hills in September and plan to reopen Newcastle Elementary in Reseda and Osage Avenue Elementary in Westchester in the coming year.

Surging enrollment, particularly in elementary schools in the West Valley and in West Los Angeles, reduced the number of open-enrollment slots. The program gives parents the opportunity to enroll their children in choice public schools, with open seats, outside their own neighborhood attendance areas. Only 7,400 seats were available in 1998-99, down from a high of 22,000 when the program began in 1994.

The year also saw philosophical battles waged over charter schools, bilingual education, computer software piracy and whether school police should carry shotguns.

Nineteen ninety-eight proved to be a winning year for El Camino Real High School, which won the National Academic Decathlon Championship in Providence, R.I., in April. The whiz kids from the Woodland Hills campus beat teams from 37 states in the two-day competition that tested their knowledge in poetry, physics, economics and social studies, among other subjects. The victory came after two straight years of second-place finishes.

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And there was tragedy, too.

Two teenagers were severely burned the day before Thanksgiving when a cannon made from juice cans exploded in a fireball during a science experiment on the football field at William S. Hart High School in Newhall. Christopher James, 17, of Stevenson Ranch, who suffered second- and third-degree burns over 50% of his body, was released Tuesday from the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital. Classmate Nolan LeMar, 17, of Castaic, suffered second-degree burns. He was released from the same hospital 11 days after the Nov. 25 accident.

Elsewhere in education, the Los Angeles Community College District--the nation’s largest two-year system--struggled to recover from its worst financial crisis during a two-decade decline.

Valley area campuses struggled with their own fiscal and managerial woes. The trustees voted not to renew the contract of Pierce College President E. Bing Inocencio, saying they were unhappy with persistent budget deficits and declining enrollment.

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The Woodland Hills campus was also beset with controversy over the future of its farmland. Preservationists want to maintain the 240-acre parcel for agricultural use, but development proponents envision a golf course and other facilities at the site to help generate revenue for the cash-strapped college.

At Mission College, President William R. Norlund publicly apologized to area residents and accepted blame for the college’s forfeiture of $4.7 million in state funds earmarked for expansion of the Sylmar campus. Norlund acknowledged that he should have solicited area residents’ opinions regarding the project early enough to meet a Dec. 30 deadline for using funds.

Cal State Northridge celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1998 amid controversy over the election of an all-minority student government, charges that a woman volleyball player cheated on exams (later proved false), the federal indictment, and subsequent resignation, of women’s basketball coach Michael Abraham on cocaine trafficking charges, and accusations that President Blenda J. Wilson’s husband, Louis Fair Jr., used federal earthquake recovery funds to pay for a truck to move furniture for the company that employs him. (An audit of the matter proved inconclusive.)

The most heated debate erupted over the university’s plans to build an 8,000-seat stadium on the north end of campus between Lindley and Zelzah avenues. Protesting homeowners argued that they would be subjected to increased traffic, noise and other annoyances from having the venue in their neighborhood.

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To mollify angry residents, the school’s 12-member Athletic Facilities Siting Advisory Committee--made up of residents, faculty and administrators--said it would consider building the stadium into a hillside to reduce noise and place entrances on busy thoroughfares such as Devonshire and Lassen streets and away from residential neighborhoods along Zelzah and Lindley. Homeowners, however, supported an alternative plan being considered by the committee to build the stadium off-campus, possibly at Pierce College.


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