Maywood activists’ fight against new school costs L.A. Unified $20 million

Some say this small city’s struggle to block construction of a high school may be a losing battle, but a tenacious group of Maywood activists has managed to hit the Los Angeles Unified School District where it hurts -- in the wallet.

By calling on a very powerful friend in Sacramento and organizing hundreds of families who would have to vacate their homes and apartments to make way for the proposed school, Maywood officials succeeded recently in depriving L.A. Unified of $20 million in state matching funds. And that figure could grow.

“How does that old saying go? We may have won the battle, but we haven’t won the war,” said Tere Nuñez, one of the affected residents and mother of four.

At issue is the construction of South Region High School No. 8. The planned $141-million school in southeast Los Angeles County is intended to relieve overcrowding at Bell High School and would require the demolition of 10 single-family homes and 29 multifamily homes and apartment buildings. In all, more than 100 families would be displaced, according to the district.

Among them is Maywood City Councilman Edward Valera. He and others claim that L.A. Unified officials ignored better sites.

But school officials deny that. They say other potential sites were either contaminated or posed other risks. They insist that construction of the school in this one-square-mile city is inevitable and that opponents are holding up progress.

Recently, opponents attempted to enlist the aid of Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and urged him to look into the school battle on behalf of his constituents. What followed was a procedural victory for the foes: The California Department of Education rescinded approval of the site because of traffic safety concerns.

Although the state Department of Education said the problems could be resolved by including new street lamps and crosswalks, the City Council must approve such additions. With a majority of the council opposed to the school, L.A. Unified officials have written off those improvements -- along with the $20 million in contingent state funding.

School officials hope to recoup that money through another state program.

Much of the campaigning against the school has been done by the local activist group Vecinos Unidos de Maywood. Members held a celebration recently when the state withdrew approval of the site.

“We don’t want them to tear down homes,” Nuñez, 36, said. “We want the school, but not at the cost of homes.”

The Education Department’s action does not bar the district from building but does mean it has to pay the forfeited $20 million out of its own pocket to acquire the land at fair market value. Further delays could double that amount, officials acknowledge.

“The people who are opposing us are saying ‘Oh, gee, you’re not going to get that money so you’re not going to build,’ ” said Rod Hamilton regional development manager for the school district. “It’s false hope. We’re going to build this school.”

That prospect is troubling to district officials who say they worked hard to make the plan attractive to Maywood residents.

“I felt like everybody bent over backwards to really come into consensus with the community,” said school board member Yolie Flores, whose district includes the southeast cities.

“I like to make people happy, but in this case, I didn’t have another tool in my tool bag to make this work the way they wanted it to work.”