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Parents Hope to Keep School Open Despite Funding Loss

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a city where even the most minute detail has been carefully thought out, the unthinkable may be at hand.

Officials in Irvine are considering closing one of the city’s oldest schools, leaving parents worried that a vital piece of their community’s master-planned identity will be swept away.

For families living in the Ranch and Smoketree neighborhoods, Los Naranjos Elementary is the center of their village. It is why many moved here. It is where they gathered to sing Christmas carols and hold summer barbecues.

“It’s like home,” said Linda Roberts, whose two children attend the school. “It’s really nice to be able to walk our kids to school and only have to cross one street where we see the same crossing guard every day. It’s where we fit, and it’s where our kids fit.”

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As in other neighborhoods in Irvine, the tracts were designed with precision and with a school at the center. And unlike other cities where schools closed as enrollment slumped, Irvine is still popping at the seams. To date, the Irvine Unified School District has closed only one campus: a school adjacent to the former El Toro Marine base that emptied when the Marines left town.

Even the mayor conceded that closing a school in Irvine is a hurtful thing. “It’s a community that is being disassembled, and I’m absolutely sympathetic,” Mayor Larry Agran said.

But with anticipated cuts in school funding from Sacramento, Irvine Unified Superintendent Pat White said the district anticipates a budget shortfall of more than $1 million for the 2002-03 school year.

As district officials take stock of what might be cut--music, arts, student counseling--Los Naranjos, with only 500 students, and even fewer expected next year, is being eyed.

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“Everything is on the table,” White said. “We are in a deep and serious financial crisis, and it simply cannot be ignored. It’s going to require some painful decisions and loss in so many quarters.”

The district figures it can save about $400,000 a year if it shuts down the ‘70s-era school. The school might be leased for other uses, or the district might move other operations to the site, saving on rent elsewhere.

But to those who settled in Irvine to live in one of its carefully crafted communities, the thought of closing the school is painful.

“It doesn’t seem fair,” said Rick Seely, who has a daughter in the third grade at Los Naranjos. “They’re just looking for a quick fix, and I don’t think they’re taking the parents’ perspective into consideration.”

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“This has been very much a grieving process,” Roberts added.

Some parents turned to the City Council, hoping it will resist the move.

Agran sympathizes, but said he also understands the school district’s pinch.

“It’s troubling and even heartbreaking to hear people who have such wonderful confidence in their neighborhood school plead with elected officials to not close that facility,” Agran said.

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A public hearing is scheduled Nov. 27, but the school board probably won’t decide the fate of Los Naranjos until December or January, White said.

Adding weight to the district’s proposal is an anticipated flight of more than half the students when Oak Creek Elementary School--a fresh face in a newly built neighborhood--opens for year-round sessions in July.

The enrollment shift would leave Los Naranjos with fewer than 250 students, White said, and they could easily be absorbed into surrounding schools or even Oak Creek.

“From our standpoint, a school that size is neither financially nor programmatically viable,” White said. “The fewer the children, obviously, the smaller the number of teachers you will have, and then all of the jobs in the school fall on the shoulders of a very small number of teachers. There’s more to running a school than just going in and teaching students how to read and write and do math.”

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But parents aren’t giving up without a fight. Since September, when the school informed families of the proposed closure, parents have rallied to come up with alternatives, including closing another school, Alderwood Elementary, and housing all the students at the physically larger Los Naranjos campus.

White said that option--and others--is being considered. But the ultimate decision will swing on which alternative saves the most money.

“While I have a heart for people in the Los Naranjos community and what they’re trying to preserve, I have a responsibility to the other 24,000 students across the entire school district,” White said. “That has to be my top priority.”


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