When student population declines, some schools must close. When a school closes, its students must be reassigned to other campuses by changing attendance boundaries.
It is a simple, inexorable sequence of events, but for many South Bay districts adjusting to declining enrollment over the past decade, the process often has been torturously complicated by social, political and sentimental factors as communities struggled with the hard questions of which schools to close and where to shift attendance boundaries.
In the case of the Palos Verdes Unified School District, which has lost 40% of its student population since 1973, the process has been made even more difficult by still another complication, district officials say.
It is an apparently novel use of environmental impact reports (EIRs) by community groups to delay or frustrate school closure plans or other district decisions affecting the disposition of school property.
Currently, opponents of a decision last year to close the Margate Intermediate School in Palos Verdes Estates in June are pressing a lawsuit against the district, alleging errors and inadequacies in the administration's EIR on proposed attendance boundary changes.
The Margate group lost the first round in court, when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that the district did not need an EIR to close a school. But the group, called the Lunada Bay-Margate Homeowners Assn. and formed after the school board's decision to close Margate, is now appealing that decision.
At a public hearing Monday on boundary changes, Margate-area parents focused their anger and frustration on the EIR, claiming that it did not adequately deal with issues of traffic congestion, transportation and student safety.
Under the proposed boundary changes, Margate students living near Point Vicente and Abalone Cove will be transferred to the Ridgecrest school in Rancho Palos Verdes, while those in the Lunada Bay area will go to the Malaga Cove campus in Palos Verdes Estates next fall.
Continuation School Blocked
Last year, the city of Rolling Hills successfully blocked district plans to set up its continuation high school at the closed La Cresta site, just outside the affluent community's gates, by convincing a Los Angeles judge that there were technical errors in the district's EIR.
But now the district, with a more carefully prepared EIR in hand, will try again to move the continuation high school--temporarily located this year on the Rolling Hills High School campus--either to the La Cresta site or to Margate.
At a public hearing last week, residents of the Margate area raised environmental issues, along with educational and social concerns, in opposing any plan to locate the continuation school in Palos Verdes Estates. Rolling Hills renewed its objections to use of the La Cresta school, citing concerns over traffic problems, parking, noise, fire prevention and landslide hazards.
As the EIR complications mount, district trustees and administrators are wishing that conflicts over school closures could be resolved "in the old way."
"We used to be able to sit down with the various community groups and government entities and discuss the problem and how it could be resolved," said district spokeswoman Nancy Mahr. "The EIR process, which really wasn't meant for our situation, seems to just add more hostility and divisiveness to what is already a difficult problem."
Mahr said her informal survey of other school systems indicates that the Palos Verdes district may be the only one in the state "entangled in the EIR process."
EIRs are required under the 1982 California Environmental Quality Act, if a governmental agency's plans may have an adverse effect on the surrounding area's environment. Mahr said the original law was unclear on how its provisions applied to school districts, but a revision that took effect on Jan. 1 specifically excludes school closures. However, the revised law did not clarify possible applications to changes in attendance boundaries, she said.
Palos Verdes first got involved in the EIR process in 1983, Mahr said, in the course of moving the district headquarters from La Cresta to the closed Valmonte Elementary School in Palos Verdes Estates. Valmonte-area residents expressed concerns about the changed use of their neighborhood school, so "to be on the safe side," the district filed a negative declaration stating that there would be no adverse impact on the environment, she said.
After that, she said, city councils and community groups began to demand EIRs in nearly every decision affecting the use of school property.
The next public hearing on revising intermediate school boundaries is set for April 8 at 8 p.m. at the district headquarters, 3801 Via La Selva in Palos Verdes Estates. Trustees are scheduled to accept the final EIR at an adjourned meeting on April 29 and then adopt the new boundaries on May 6.