Laguna Beach Schools Accept Future Students in Growth Area
After three years of contentious community meetings, Laguna Beach school officials decided Monday to enroll what is expected to be up to 340 students from the developing Newport Coast.
The move will expand the district’s 2,500-student population by 13% in the next dozen years, starting with the 2000-01 academic year. It also boosts the school district’s finances by $2.8 million a year in property tax revenue once the homes are built, and provides an additional $6.6 million from the developer, the Irvine Co., to lessen the burden of educating more students.
“It’s a good thing for the district,” Steven Rabago, a school board member, said. “We’ve studied it . . . and we continue to find compelling reasons to do it.”
The turmoil in Laguna Beach, where a group of parents has battled the proposal since November 1995, could be repeated in any city grappling with the effects of growth and development. It has been an agonizing process for the Laguna school community, despite the financial help from the Irvine Co.
“We feel relief that a decision has finally been made,” said Paul Kranhold, a spokesman for the developer.
The district now must come up with extra classrooms, teachers and textbooks in three of its four schools to educate the Newport Coast students. It must also explain why it backed away from efforts to change the district’s boundaries so the new homes would lie within the neighboring Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
Most of the Newport Coast development, being built on unincorporated county land, sits in the Newport-Mesa district. A small section in the southern part of the development lies in the Laguna school district, but Newport-Mesa school officials have always indicated a willingness to accept those students within their boundaries.
Rabago said that as negotiations progressed, he and others on the school board realized that the district would never be able to recoup the lost revenue from turning away the extra students, even if the city of Laguna Beach pitched in with more money.
“It became clearer and clearer and clearer that it’s going to be a great benefit for the district, not just one year, but every year,” he said.
Some parents, who have packed the school administration office to protest expanding enrollments, said they were infuriated by the board’s decision.
“I don’t think we have the space and I don’t think we have the money,” said Ellen Harris, a parent of two El Morro Elementary School students and a constant critic of the Newport Coast plan.
Most of the students will attend El Morro, one of two elementary schools in Laguna Beach. Enrollment will also increase at Thurston Middle School and Laguna Beach High School.
Harris and other foes placed a half-page advertisement in a local newspaper last week, charging that the school board is using “voodoo economics” to “put our children’s education at risk again.”
James P. Ferryman, president of the Newport-Mesa school board, said he was disappointed by the outcome because representatives of his district agreed to change the boundaries so lucrative commercial property would lie in the Laguna school district. In exchange, the students would attend Newport-Mesa schools.
“We gave them just about everything they wanted,” Ferryman said. “Negotiations seemed to go one way and it wasn’t in our direction.”
Current boundaries, he said, force students who live across the street from one another as well as a few who live on the same side of the street to attend different school districts.
“I just don’t think it’s right,” Ferryman said.
Sensing community opposition, some Laguna Beach city officials also pledged financial support if the district did not take the additional students. But the mayor said they couldn’t match the Irvine Co.'s mitigation agreement.
“It appeared no amount that we could offer was sufficient to change their course,” Mayor Steve Dicterow said.
The district does have support from some parents who have attended school board meetings in recent weeks to urge the board to move ahead with the Irvine Co.
“We need money in this district,” said Bob Earl, father of a Laguna Beach High School student. He also said the small high school could expand its course offerings if it had more students.
An architect and a financial consultant hired by the district to evaluate the mitigation agreement with the Irvine Co. recommended the offer, contending that $6.6 million would easily offset the cost of adding more students and would provide extra dollars to refurbish aging schools.
Wendy Offield, president of the school fund-raising group SchoolPower, recently extended her support for the added enrollment from Newport Coast, saying she was speaking as a parent and not as a SchoolPower representative. But in an example of how highly charged the issue has become, she was rebuked for her public comments. Several parents said they would no longer contribute to the organization.
Others were dismayed that the board would hold a 7:30 a.m. meeting to decide such an important issue. Usually the board meets Tuesday evenings. Only one person, City Councilman Paul Freeman, attended to observe the meeting. The night meetings usually draw a number of parents, school administrators and reporters.
Rabago said 7:30 a.m. Monday was the only time all five board members could attend. Public notice of the meeting was posted Friday outside the school district office, said Barbara Callard, the interim superintendent.
Ron Harris, a parent active in school issues, called the early-morning meeting “an act of cowardice on the part of the board members so they wouldn’t have to face the public.”
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School Boundaries Unchanged
Laguna Beach school officials will no longer try to change the district’s boundaries and are set to enroll up to 340 more students from along Newport Coast.