L.A. Unified schools won’t lack for space

Times Staff Writer

San Fernando Middle School is expecting 1,600 students this fall, but officials estimate that the north Valley campus could handle 2,300. Lake Primary Center in Echo Park is expecting 160 but has room for 260. And Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights is anticipating about 2,700 students; it has space for about 3,000.

What do Los Angeles Unified School District officials plan to do with the empty space? Add to it.

The district plans to build campuses that will take hundreds of students from those schools, further reducing their enrollment. By the time the building program is completed in 2012, there will be tens of thousands of empty seats at dozens of once-crowded schools, a Times analysis shows.


The district will use boundary changes, smaller class sizes and other methods to even out enrollment and reduce the surplus. A decade ago, the nation’s second-largest school system was bursting at the seams, with campuses so crowded that students sometimes had no desks. And the number of students was predicted to keep growing. The dire situation persuaded local voters to approve four bonds, which launched a $20-billion building and modernization program.

But now, with 180 new schools and additions completed and 79 more on the drawing board, things have changed dramatically.

Economic and demographic changes have resolved some of the space crunch that the construction program was created to fix.

Over the last decade, fewer people moved to Southern California, large numbers of school-aged children grew up, and the birth rate among Latinos declined. Some students left traditional public schools to enroll in publicly financed charters, experts and officials said. Rising housing prices changed the face of some neighborhoods in the urban core, bringing singles and childless couples into what were once communities of large, poor immigrant families.

As a result, L.A. Unified has lost 57,000 students, nearly 8% of its total enrollment.

“When we wrote the ballot arguments against the last bond, we said they should wait. There were still billions of dollars in the pipeline, and their own figures showed declining enrollment,” said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. “We were speculating that these schools were eventually going to be housing the homeless because we’re running out of students.”

With the district paying $600 a square foot for construction costs, the extra schools add up to real money.

Facing a budget shortfall, the school board last year scrapped 19 projects and reduced the size of others, citing demographic changes, but officials said every remaining school is necessary.

L.A. Unified plans to add space for roughly 70,000 students at currently mandated class sizes by 2012. But its own projections show that would produce space for 25,000 more students than needed to take schools off year-round schedules and eliminate forced busing, the goals of the school building program.

The district is continuing with plans to build some schools in areas of dwindling population and others that are too large, in some cases because the projects are too far along. Also, the district, running up against state deadlines for matching funds, is primed to avoid delays.

“If we’re locked and loaded, let’s go,” said Edwin Van Ginkel, a high-ranking consultant for the district’s building program. “You don’t save a whole lot of money in redesign. You’re just taking a few classrooms out.”

In addition, officials said, the extra space will allow the district to stop crowding playgrounds with portable classroom trailers, leave a large majority of classrooms empty for one period to allow teachers to plan there and, potentially, shrink class sizes at all schools. The extra space will also allow the district to take advantage of a seven-year state grant to make classes at select campuses smaller still. These measures were not envisioned when voters were asked to approve the bonds.

Rena Perez, the district’s head demographer, said an increase in births in the region is expected to cause enrollment to begin rising in six years.

“If we build to our absolute need, then we wouldn’t have any margin if and when our enrollment starts to grow again,” she said.

No one wants to repeat history.

In the late 1990s, L.A. schools were so cramped that more than 14,000 students were bused from their neighborhoods to less-crowded schools, some traveling for an hour or more.

Tens of thousands of students rotated in and out of campuses on year-round calendars that were once hailed as an efficient use of buildings but have since come under scrutiny as a stumbling block to education.

Schools were in disrepair and polls showed education was on voters’ minds. Officials thought the time was right to ask for improvements and a small amount of construction. The first ballot measure failed by a slim margin, but a second one months later passed with 71% of the vote.

With that success -- and a subsequent reduction in the vote margin required to pass such ballot measures, from two-thirds to 55% -- Los Angeles school officials returned to voters three times to fund increasingly ambitious goals. What began as a plea to pay for air conditioning for year-round campuses, new roofs and restroom repairs evolved into a program that promised to do away with year-round schools and forced busing.

The ballot argument for Measure K in 2002 told prospective voters that more schools were needed because the district would add 200,000 students during the subsequent decade.

Instead, enrollment began to drop.

Even experienced demographers did not predict the depth of the enrollment decline; instead, state officials said, they had expected a flattening.

Some public school districts around the state have postponed plans for school construction or delayed openings, said Mike Regele, a former Irvine school board member who now runs DecisionInsite, a business providing enrollment projections for school systems.

“School districts by nature are conservative because they know what it means if they build something that’s marginal in terms of need and five years down the road they don’t need it,” he said. “Politically, that’s a disaster for them.”

That has become clear to officials of Elk Grove, Calif., just south of Sacramento. Controversy surrounds two new schools that were built to serve a planned 1,900-acre housing development that has failed to materialize.

And the decline in student enrollment is not over.

L.A. Unified officials calculate an average drop of 1.6% a year until 2014, when a projected wave of larger kindergarten classes is expected.

But a sea change is hard to predict with precision, planners said.

“The hardest part for anybody who does projections on anything is when you get what I call a curve change. Is it going to go down? Is it going to stay flat? Is it going to go up again?” Regele said. “That is the part where it feels like you’re reading tea leaves.”

District officials said they have no doubts that enrollment will rebound, but they concede that it’s impossible to know with certainty which schools will grow and which will not.

Students would have to arrive in droves to fill the extra seats.

Year-round calendars are in use at 113 schools, down from 225 in 2002, and each fall dozens of campuses return to traditional schedules.

Only nine schools are still busing excess students to other campuses, down from more than 100 in 2002.

As students are able to return to their neighborhood schools, Westside and Valley campuses that once received busloads of students are back to having empty space.

All told, the district estimates its schools will have a 16% vacancy rate by 2012 under currently mandated class sizes; it will have the capacity to seat 670,000 students, but only 560,000 are expected to enroll.

Some schools will have the equivalent of only a few empty classrooms. But 21 elementary schools are expected to have 300 or more empty seats each, 26 middle schools are expected to have at least 500 empty seats each, and six high schools are predicted to be 1,000 students under capacity.

School board members support active projects, and some push district staff to plan for more students as they battle a notorious dropout rate.

But angry property owners and community activists, fighting campuses that would take homes and businesses for schools at a time of declining enrollment, have repeatedly asked why building plans have not been changed.

The district’s building program head, Guy Mehula, said it is not overbuilding.

“It’s important to remember that from 1980 to 2002, the district grew. . . . The answer to that was putting in portables and taking away the playground space, it was busing kids, it was multitrack calendars,” he said. “We’re making up for years of neglect.”



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Room to spread out

Instead of crowded campuses, the Los Angeles Unified School District will have tens of thousands of empty seats by the time the $20-billion building and repair program is completed in 2012. Some examples:

* Notoriously overcrowded Belmont High School just west of downtown and the new campuses built to relieve it will have nearly 1,000 empty seats in 2012, according to district projections.

* Franklin High School in Highland Park would have had more than 300 empty seats by 2012 as it is, district records show. With the construction of a nearby high school, Franklin’s attendance area is expected to have more than three times as many: 967 empty seats.

* Hazeltine and Plummer elementary schools’ attendance areas in the San Fernando Valley would each have had 100 empty seats without the planned construction of two new elementary schools. Two future elementary school campuses will double the number of empty seats in each area to about 200.

* A kindergarten-through- eighth-grade San Fernando Valley school will draw about 900 students from two local elementary schools and two local middle schools. Those schools, which are on traditional, summers-off calendars, have hundreds of empty seats among them.

Source: Times staff writer Evelyn Larrubia