Irvine parents lobby for new schools

About 150 parents and several students representing Oak Creek and Alderwood elementary schools voiced concerns to the Irvine Unified School District board this week over plans to expand enrollment at campuses already pushing the limits of capacity.

The parking lot was packed with minivans while a standing-room-only crowd spilled into the hallways at Tuesday’s meeting.

The district’s facilities staff proposed in November that enrollment be expanded at Oak Creek and Alderwood to accommodate students from newer, growing developments in the Spectrum and Los Olivos areas, where there are no neighborhood schools.

Oak Creek and Alderwood, which were designed to accommodate up to 750 students, each has enrollment of more than 900. The proposal projects an increase to 1,100 at Oak Creek and 1,200 at Alderwood over the next 10 years. That’s if a new school is not approved, which is what the parents are lobbying for.

“Our hope is that they’ll abandon their plans to expand our schools and build the school in Los Olivos,” said Kristi Smemoe, an Oak Creek parent who helped organize the rally.

Smemoe was the first of 10 public speakers who voiced concerns at the school board meeting.

The stream of parents, and one student, expressed frustration with effects on quality of education in growing classrooms and safety concerns over increasing traffic congestion.

Each drew enthusiastic applause, with the loudest reserved for the final speaker, sixth-grader Claire Cho, who graduated from Oak Creek last year.

“They know you as an individual,” Claire said, describing her experience with school staff while expressing sadness that activity areas on campus could be sacrificed for additional classroom space.

She concluded by submitting a petition with 178 signatures “of kids who feel the same way.”

The school board and the Irvine Co., the Los Olivos developer, have been working together for a solution to overcrowding. With a similar issue in the Portola Springs neighborhood, the board is tasked with determining whether it’s feasible to build one or two new schools.

“New schools cost tens of millions of dollars, so we just need to make sure that we can pay for it and that numbers will justify it,” district board President Paul Bokota said after the meeting. “We are absolutely looking at it very seriously.”

Irvine Co. Senior Vice President Michael LeBlanc attended the meeting and clarified the developer’s position on land reservations to build schools.

“In this instance, we made it clear to the school district we very much were supportive of the idea of having a school site in our Los Olivos community,” LeBlanc told the Daily Pilot. “We think it’s best to understand that we probably should have a school site in both areas. We said, ‘Let’s build both of them.’ The school board has to wrestle with what is the right answer.”

Smemoe said, “Our hope is that they’ll do more than that — give us the land and help pay for the school in Los Olivos.”

Parents and volunteers canvassed streets in both neighborhoods over the past two weeks in an effort to boost attendance at the meeting. A group of parent activists explained they wanted to be proactive in the board’s decision on the proposal.

“It was, ‘Here’s what we came up with, here’s where we’re going to put all these other kids,’” without any community input from anyone in advance,” said Shara Witkin, an Oak Creek parent. “We wanted to get to it before it kept going too far, before it gets approved.”

Tracey Hill, president of the Oak Creek PTA, said the effort isn’t only about the families in the Oak Creek and Alderwood neighborhoods. She said children in the Spectrum and Los Olivos areas have a considerable stake in the board’s decision too.

“They deserve to have a neighborhood school as well,” Hill said.