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Rebuffed, Then Polished

Times Staff Writer

When push came to shove, it was the orphan neighborhood that nobody wanted.

But as orphans often do, Oak Park grew up and became a success. And now nearly everyone would like to adopt a piece of the community that can trace its roots to a school board meeting fracas.

That’s what residents of the once isolated Ventura County valley were thinking Saturday as they opened a community time capsule -- and remembered the not-so-good-old days of nearly four decades ago when neither Los Angeles County nor the next-door Las Virgenes Unified School District wanted to have anything to do with them.

That unneighborly cold shoulder forced Oak Park teenagers to travel 46 miles a day to and from classes in distant Simi Valley. And that bus ride galvanized the parents living in a subdivision of 609 ranch-style homes clustered next to the Ventura County line to audaciously create their own school system and begin seizing control of their own community’s destiny.

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So no wonder an enthusiastic crowd of some 600 was on hand for the unearthing of a capsule buried 25 years ago on the day Oak Park High School first opened its doors.

“Let me thank the Las Virgenes school district for not letting us in,” Richard Daley, one of the Oak Park Unified School District’s founding trustees, said to heavy applause.

Old-timers in the crowd could remember how difficult life was in the late 1960s and the ‘70s for those raising families in the unincorporated neighborhood that lies 10 miles west of the San Fernando Valley.

There was only one way in and out of Oak Park: Kanan Road, which dead-ended in the housing tract. There were no shops or stores, so the 2,400 residents had to travel 1.5 miles through Los Angeles County cattle-grazing land to buy groceries and gas in Agoura.

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Firetrucks, sheriff’s deputies and rescue ambulances from Thousand Oaks responded to Oak Park emergencies. That 10-mile trip was a stomach-churner when a house was on fire or a resident was suffering a heart attack and firefighters from Los Angeles County were unable to come and help out.

That isolation worried Ventura County officials so much that a land swap was proposed that in 1967 would have turned over Oak Park’s 2,650 rolling acres to Los Angeles County. No thanks, responded the would-be recipient.

Oak Park children had their own elementary school, constructed when builder Louis Boyar’s Metropolitan Development Corp. acquired what in the 1940s and ‘50s was ranchland owned by “Fibber McGee and Molly” radio stars Jim and Marian Jordan.

The grade school was operated by the Simi Valley Unified School District. But there was no middle or high school campus in Oak Park. And a range of 2,000-foot-high mountains separated the community’s teenagers from secondary classrooms in Simi Valley -- necessitating the 46-mile school bus trip.

“It was awful. We had to get on the bus in the morning in the dark. You couldn’t do after-school activities -- you couldn’t be part of your school,” former student Barbara Manning Preston recalled Saturday. “And we’d have to ride past two other high schools to go to another one.”

Her mother, Pat Manning, said their family tried to leave shortly after buying one of Oak Park’s original homes in 1968.

“It was so tough for the kids. Oak Park was not the most wonderful place to be because of the school situation. We tried to move, but we couldn’t sell our house. We couldn’t give it away,” said Manning, who would later help create the Oak Park district and serve as its first board president.

By the early 1970s, Oak Park parents were begging the next-door Las Virgenes district to annex their neighborhood. Geographically and socially they were one community, the parents argued. And annexation would put their youngsters within walking distance of Agoura’s public schools.

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The parents’ campaign unraveled 32 years ago this month at an emotional Las Virgenes board of education meeting as angry accusations -- and fists -- flew. Surprising many at the meeting, Las Virgenes’ then-school superintendent urged that his school system welcome the Oak Park youngsters.

“Irrespective of whose fault it is, the children in Oak Park are disadvantaged by geography and topography,” Ken Osborn said. “We believe that we should not be bound by what was realistic for a Spanish landlord in 1820. We believe that now is the time for a people-oriented and child-oriented philosophy to be extended.”

Those on the Agoura side of the county line denounced the annexation idea. A woman from Agoura’s Hillrise subdivision told board members that she was worried about her children attending class with the Oak Park subdivision’s “little dope addicts.”

Oak Park resident Mark Shaw took the microphone to refute “that lady -- if you can call her that .... “

From the audience the woman’s husband yelled, “You can!” He raced to the front of the hearing room and knocked Shaw to the floor, upending the speaker’s lectern in the process. Startled school officials separated the two men.

The Oak Park orphans’ push for acceptance had turned into a shoving match. And from that moment on the two communities were destined to take separate paths.

Shaw no longer lives in Oak Park. But others Saturday recalled the mood back then.

“In the eyes of Las Virgenes people, we were lower class and didn’t meet their expectations,” said Phyllis Friefeld Porter, another Oak Park district founder.

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Oak Park residents formed an elected Municipal Advisory Council that quickly won clout with officials at the county seat 35 miles away in Ventura. County supervisors put the brakes on what had been Metropolitan Development’s initial intent to create a community with as many as 20,000 homes and a potential population of 75,000.

Eventually, a much-reduced development plan for Oak Park was approved by the county. Hillsides and ridge tops were protected, and vast areas of open space preserved. Today, the community is virtually built out. The latest census shows that 14,874 residents live in its 5,310 homes.

The spurned Oak Park homeowners formed their own school district in 1977. In what the Los Angeles Times then described as “an amazing 73%" voter turnout, 93% of those voting supported the move.

A short time later, residents passed a $40-million bond measure to finance new classrooms, and ground was broken for Oak Park High School. Las Virgenes officials, meantime, agreed to let Oak Park middle and high school students attend Agoura campuses under a short-term agreement.

These days the Oak Park school district operates three elementary schools, a middle school and a continuation high school in addition to Oak Park High.

In the most recent state Academic Performance Index, Oak Park High scored 881 out of a possible 1,000 while Las Virgenes’ Agoura High scored 818.

Oak Park’s demographics also outpace those of neighboring Agoura Hills, which since 1982 has been an incorporated city. And community leaders have statistical breakdowns to prove that, because in 1999 they persuaded federal postal officials to give Oak Park its own ZIP Code: 91377.

The average Oak Park family household income for 2005 was $140,863, according to census figures. Within Agoura Hills’ 91301 ZIP Code, the average family household income last year was $129,399.

Oak Park home prices started at $23,695 when they first went on the market in 1966. Last year, the median was $800,000, according to DataQuick Information Systems.

There are those in the Las Virgenes school district who now wish they had annexed Oak Park three decades ago.

“Clearly, it would have been in the best interest of the community as a whole if the decision had been different,” said Las Virgenes schools Deputy Supt. Donald Zimring, who vividly remembers the 1974 rejection. “It could have been an incredible opportunity for the whole area.”

At Saturday’s ceremony, longtime resident Harvey Kern helped outline Oak Park’s tortuous climb for newer residents.

Even the 1978 groundbreaking ceremony for Oak Park High was a washout, as a pounding rainstorm forced the hardy school founders to conduct the rites over buckets of mud in board of eduction President Phyllis Friefeld’s kitchen.

Dan Thompson, the school district’s first superintendent, reminisced about the rug burns suffered by basketball players from the carpet that was initially installed in the Oak Park High gym in a cost-saving move 25 years ago.

He joked about the $56,000 that entertainer Bob Hope paid in 1986 to cover damage to the school’s athletic fields caused by cattle that strayed from his nearby leased ranchland.

Today, Oak Park has three shopping centers and its own library and fire station, along with its schools, seven parks and open space.

“I’m so proud of this place,” said Sara Jane Eisenberg Feldman -- a 1970s-era Oak Park resident who traveled from her current home in Glendale, Ariz., for the capsule opening.

Old school yearbooks, photos, newspaper clippings, an autographed baseball and other memorabilia emerged in good shape when workers provided by Oak Park contractor Greg Hillman lifted the 3-foot-by-2-foot-by-1-foot copper box from its buried concrete vault and cut it open.

“We’ll get a new capsule and put some of this back in it and add some current, modern stuff,” pledged resident Sandy Oberman, who was one of the first to move into Oak Park in 1967. “And we’ll rebury it for another 25 years.”


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