Standoff Stalls New School in Lynwood

Times Staff Writer

Two powerful governing bodies in Lynwood stand no farther apart than the width of the two-lane path that runs between their offices on Bullis Road. But when it comes to agreement on the location of a new high school, Lynwood City Hall and Lynwood Unified School District are miles apart.

The core problem is a scarcity of open space in this 5-square-mile city of 69,000. What began as a quest to ease overcrowding at Lynwood High School has evolved into bickering and a $12-million-plus difference of opinion.

District officials want to put the new school in John D. Ham Park, a 14.8-acre oasis in the working-class city that has only one other park. The city says it welcomes the school there, but according to a state public resources code, a replacement park would have to be built. The district has balked at the pricey request, putting the project on hold.

"The children are being held hostage because everyone wants to get something out of it," said Adolph Lopez, president of the Lynwood PTA.

Lynwood's dilemma is reminiscent of efforts in Los Angeles and other districts to find appropriate school construction sites amid competing needs for parks, housing and commercial properties.

The disagreement in Lynwood involves varying interpretations of a memorandum of understanding signed by the two parties in April. The document includes terms for use of five proposed sites -- for the high school and four other schools -- and a provision that the district can acquire Ham Park through a mutually agreed-upon process. It also says the district would give up two proposed sites that the city had already chosen for redevelopment.

"Our understanding was that we were giving up two sites for Ham Park," said Greg Norman, chief operating officer of Norman and Norman, the company hired by the district to manage the project.

The city agreed to provide the district with names of appraisers to provide a "fair market value" for Ham Park. The appraiser came up with $4 million, a figure based solely on the park's land value. But city officials say the total cost to replace Ham Park, including acquisition of property, would be much higher.

Norman, who called the replacement value a "Johnny-come-lately concept," says the district was not made aware of the desire for replacement value of the park until October.

City Manager Faustin Gonzales said this is untrue.

"I made it clear to Greg Norman," Gonzales said. "Very clear."

Classroom construction costs for the planned high school are estimated at $75 million to $80 million. However, that does not include expenses such as site acquisition or relocation of residents and businesses.

The Lynwood district will seek state funds from Proposition 47, passed in November, which earmarks $11.4 billion for modernization and construction of kindergarten through 12th-grade schools. If Lynwood qualifies as a financial hardship district, as it has in the past, it could receive up to 100% of the funds from the state. Lynwood also passed a local bond, Measure C, which allots $20 million to school repairs and construction.

Friction between the district and city has been a problem in Lynwood for years. During a tense joint meeting Dec. 16, the board and council offered differing views of the memorandum and an Oct. 28 meeting with county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. Both say Burke sided with them, but she remains adamant that the park, deeded by the county to Lynwood, be replaced and the district foot the bill.

One issue not in dispute is the need for more schools. Lynwood serves about 19,000 students in 15 schools. Its high school, built in 1998 to house 3,300 students, holds 4,500.

"I could care less if they build schools on top of the councilmen's heads as long as they build them," said Lopez, who has two children in school.

The district could acquire land by eminent domain. If school officials decided to do this with Ham Park, they would only have to pay the city the $4-million appraisal value, but the action would probably lead to litigation. The district spent nearly a decade trying to get the current high school built, due in part to a legal fight with the Seventh-day Adventist Church over a parcel of land. Another solution that many cities have adopted is a joint-use agreement, whereby schools are built on property adjacent to a park and both the city and the district can use the land. But park land used by schools would still have to be replaced, Burke said.

The city has proposed building a replacement park on a stretch of Atlantic Avenue filled with small businesses. The estimated cost to acquire the land and relocate businesses is $16.7 million but could rise to $20 million. The district says this price is inflated.

"Our responsibility is not to build parks; it's to build schools," said school board member Martina Rodriguez.

The school district and the city plan to meet again in joint session. District officials will also speak with staff of the State Allocation Board, which parcels out Proposition 47 funds. According to Bruce Hancock, assistant executive officer for the staff, the board will then decide whether the district will receive money for the park replacement and, if so, how much.

Allotting funds for park replacement is unusual, Hancock said. "I do not recall ever seeing a proposal quite like this," he said. If the proposal was approved, it would mean that bond money meant for schools would pay for a new park. According to Hancock, getting city governments and school districts to agree is difficult because they have different timelines and priorities.

"Usually each entity has its own goals," he said. "But they have to work together to get them to mesh, and that requires effort and cost."

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