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Parents protest Perry Elementary closure as Huntington Beach City School District superintendent resigns

Diane Parras, an alumna of Perry Elementary School, holds a sign during a protest of the school's closure on Tuesday.
Diane Parras, an alumna of Perry Elementary School in Huntington Beach, holds a sign during a protest of the school’s closure on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

About 100 parents and children from Perry Elementary School in Huntington Beach gathered at the campus Tuesday evening, protesting its closure.

At about the same time across town, Huntington Beach City School District leadership was in the process of changing.

The school board accepted the resignation of Supt. Gregg Haulk at Tuesday night’s meeting, effective Aug. 1. Haulk is retiring after nine years and former Buena Park Supt. Greg Magnuson will take interim duties, according to a release.

In a letter posted on the district website, Haulk, 58, cited school modernization and upgrades as a result of Measure Q’s passage as a highlight of his tenure. It also wasn’t without controversy.

On April 29, the HBCSD board of trustees unanimously voted to close Joseph R. Perry Elementary School, which has been open since 1965. The school, at 19231 Harding Lane, is more than 40% Latino and about 49% low-income families, unlike many of the other elementary schools in the district.

Several of the parents at Tuesday’s protest expressed frustration that the closure happened in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and that communication regarding the closure was presented solely in English, not Spanish as well. Comments of several speakers at the protest, including event organizer and Perry parent Kurt Chrestensen and fellow organizer Oscar Rodriguez, were translated into both languages.

Students and family members protest the closing of Perry Elementary School in Huntington Beach on Tuesday.
Students and family members protest the closing of Perry Elementary School in Huntington Beach on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Protesters, who were all wearing masks, then marched in a loop along Garfield Avenue, south on Beach Boulevard and back on Yorktown Avenue before returning to the school.

Valeria Espinoza, who is a Perry Panther alumna, said she recently learned that her son Aaron, a first-grader next year, would be transferred to Seacliff Elementary.

Espinoza started a petition and said she has been calling the school district a couple of times a day.

“We don’t know what to do anymore,” Espinoza said. “We do think it’s discrimination. They could have closed another school, but they didn’t ... They didn’t want to spend the money on us.

“I don’t want [Aaron] coming home crying, or kids not wanting to play with him. We’re doing everything we can and we’re not giving up on this.”

At the time of the vote, district officials said that the closure would help the district absolve $6.8 million in projected budget cuts and was justified by declining enrollment. A school consolidation task force committee, chaired by Magnuson, voted 7-4 on April 12 to recommend Perry for closure, despite a previous task force unanimously determining in 2019 that Perry should not be closed.

Perry, the only elementary school in the northeast portion of the district, also is unique demographically. The percentages of Latino and low-income families are more than double that of any other district elementary school.

“There were cuts that had to be made,” district spokesman John Ashby said. “Teachers were unfortunately laid off, and classified staff. It’s been a really tough year within the district on top of the COVID stuff.”

Ashby said the board was open to taking more thoughts and comments, but that the district plans to move forward with the closure of Perry and relocating Perry families to the other six elementary schools in the district.

Students and family members walk along Beach Blvd. in protest of the closure of Perry Elementary School in Huntington Beach.
Students and family members walk along Beach Boulevard in protest of the closure of Perry Elementary School in Huntington Beach on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I think people are entitled to their opinions, but I know that a school closure was not dependent solely upon any demographics,” he said.

“Perry was not chosen based on its demographics. There’s a lot that goes into the closing of a school ... and there was a healthy discussion within the committee. The data that people want to see is just in regard to the demographic set, but Perry also had the lowest enrollment we had across the school district. People will definitely talk about the transfer policies and how families were able to transfer out of that school, and that was part of the discussion, but ultimately the board of trustees made the decision unanimously to close Perry.”

Perry parent Luis Solis said he was never notified the school would be closed until the final Zoom meeting on April 29, when the final vote occurred.

Solis went to Peterson Elementary in the district, but he said he doesn’t think it’s right that his son Paul will have to change schools when he enters first grade next year.

"[Perry] connects with us,” Solis said. “We have a relation with the teachers, and they have a relation with us.”

Chrestensen said he believes the law is on the parents’ side in regard to fighting the closure. One of the speakers at Tuesday’s protest was attorney Deylin Thrift-Viveros of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has gotten involved in the fight.

“The district wants to play hardball, and that’s what we’re going to have to do,” Chrestensen said.

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