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L.A. schools cut building plans as enrollment falls

ROOM FOR MORE: Desks and chairs go unused in Jennifer Bares’ fourth-grade classroom at Logan Street Elementary school in Echo Park, where enrollment has dropped 52.6% since 2000-01.
ROOM FOR MORE: Desks and chairs go unused in Jennifer Bares’ fourth-grade classroom at Logan Street Elementary school in Echo Park, where enrollment has dropped 52.6% since 2000-01.
(Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Declining enrollment has prompted the Los Angeles Unified School District to scale back its $20-billion school construction and remodeling program sought to relieve overcrowding and end involuntary busing.

The building program, which is paid for by four bond issues approved by local voters and state funds, is believed to be the largest public works project in the nation. But since the fall, the school system has canceled plans for 19 new schools and additions to existing campuses in South Gate, Bell, Van Nuys, San Fernando, Sun Valley and central Los Angeles, among other areas, citing new enrollment projections.

On Tuesday, the Board of Education downsized five new schools, eliminating more than 1,000 seats, and last year, the district decided against building seven others, also largely because of decreased enrollment.

“This is major,” said board member Marguerite LaMotte, who appeared amazed recently when the board voted to shrink a proposed Maywood high school from about 2,000 classroom seats to 1,200. Even overcrowded nearby Bell High School, which the new school will relieve, has benefited from demographic changes.

Overall, the nation’s second-largest school system now serves 694,288 students, down 7% from its peak in 2003 of 747,009 students. The drop stems from years of declining birth rates and increasing housing prices that have pushed poor and working-class families out of many gentrified urban Los Angeles neighborhoods.

A similar decline in students is being felt in other districts in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, a product of the sharp increase in housing prices over the last decade. Compton Unified has eliminated one of two planned elementary schools, partly because of decreased enrollment.

In Los Angeles, reducing the number of new classrooms will not, however, mean that the district will have a surplus of bond money, officials said. Construction costs have nearly tripled to $500 per square foot or higher since 2001, causing a shortfall. The district has cut more than $1 billion from school repair, technology and early education programs to make up the difference.

Guy Mehula, the district’s chief facilities executive, has assured the board that the 80,000 seats left to be built still appear necessary. He has repeatedly pointed out that 200,000 children will be learning in portable classrooms even after the construction program is completed. The district expects enrollment numbers to begin to rise again in about five years.

But years of declines have provided ammunition to residents seeking to block new campuses. The downturn was cited by Van Nuys residents, who hired a lawyer to fight a new school that would have required tearing down residences. District officials sent a letter last month to property owners around Cedros Avenue, saying they had scrapped the school because “updated enrollment projections” have made it unnecessary.

Demographics were also among the arguments being used by residents of White House Place Primary Center, west of downtown, who are opposed to losing an unusual ecological housing village to a new elementary school. They said seats are empty at two schools that the new campus is slated to relieve and a third will be giving up students to the massive K-12 campus at the site of the former Ambassador Hotel.

Perhaps the costliest fight over declining enrollment is being waged over what the district calls Central Region Elementary School No. 14, in Echo Park, which has been tied up in court for more than two years. The proposed school was promised to voters in 2005, principally to remove chronically jammed Rosemont Elementary School from a four-track year-round schedule.

About 1,500 students then attended the campus, which has relied on a staggered calendar for more than a decade.

But Rosemont, now down to 964 students, switched back to a traditional September-through-June schedule in the fall. School principal Evaristo Barrett even circulated a flier in the neighborhood recruiting pupils to avoid losing teachers.

“Please tell your neighbors, family and friends that we are looking for additional students,” he said in Spanish and English.

Christine Peters leads a vocal opposition group, the Right Site Coalition, which has filed court actions seeking to block construction of the $59-million campus. The district has already spent $26 million buying the 49 residences and six commercial lots on the site at Santa Ynes and Alvarado streets, mitigating contamination and designing the new campus.

“They just don’t want to say: ‘Oops, we’re wrong,’ so they’re going to push this thing through regardless, just to save face,” said Peters, a member of the city’s neighborhood council for the area. “Their stated goal was to return schools to single track. It’s done. All schools are in traditional calendars in Echo Park.”

District officials insist the campus will be needed by the time elementary school enrollment picks up again.

“Enrollment in the neighborhood drops off and goes back up. It always recovers,” said Tom Calhoun, central region development manager for the district. “We want to make sure that we plan for the long term.”

He also said that Rosemont’s capacity will ultimately drop to fewer than 800 students because the district plans to remove classrooms crowding the school’s playground.

Calhoun said the proposed campus will make an ideal neighborhood school because 450 students live within a four-block radius and 150 more live across Alvarado Street. Those students now cross under the 101 Freeway to attend Rosemont. Hundreds more pupils expected to attend the 875-student campus could come from more than a mile away.

The project has been controversial from its first public meeting in 2004, when officials unveiled three proposed sites. Residents countered with nine alternatives.

“The feedback that we got from individuals was, No. 1, don’t take any homes, don’t build a school -- or limit the number of homes,” said Lily Quiroa, a former district community relations official. The site was picked “because it limited the number of homes that were taken,” she added.

Since then, enrollment has plummeted at Rosemont and other area schools, particularly at smaller campuses to the north. Elysian Heights Elementary School, which has lost 53% of its student body since 2001, combined kindergarten and first-grade classes in the fall.

“We never realized large families were going to be moving out,” said Quiroa, who no longer works for the district. “Four years ago when we were looking for the site, the numbers were there, the need was there.”

Even as enrollment changed, the district said the school was still necessary to relieve crowded campuses outside of Echo Park. Plasencia Elementary, for example, has been dropped from the list of schools the new campus was slated to relieve and has been replaced with Commonwealth Avenue Elementary and Lafayette Park Primary Center, more than a mile away.

The area’s newly elected school board member, Yolie Flores Aguilar, said it’s clear that gentrification is reducing enrollment but not enough to scrap the school.

Her predecessor, David Tokofsky, remains a stalwart supporter of the project.

“Rosemont is like an intestine. It’s twisted and turned,” he said. “There is no mother or father that you can think of who wouldn’t prefer an elementary school of 400 to 500 kids than an elementary school of 850 to 1,250.”

Retired attorney Francisco Torrero, also a member of the neighborhood council, said he can’t count on the population dip’s being permanent, given redevelopment and construction in the general vicinity.

“Who are me or Christine or anyone to tell the people who move into these places: No, you can’t have children?” asked Torrero, a 30-year resident and father of a fifth-grader at Rosemont. “If you’re going to wait 20 years when there’s no money available with the state or the district to build a school, what will you do then? It’s going to put you back on the same boat.”

evelyn.larrubia@latimes.com


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