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San Marino's Schools: Pockets of Poverty in Community of Wealth

September 18, 1986|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

It happens, Selma L. Sax says, every time she goes to Sacramento to lobby for public education.

When she tells legislators that she's from San Marino, they say, "Oh, you're from that rich town."

"Wait a minute," replies Sax, who is vice president of the San Marino board of education. "I'm from an affluent community but from a poor school district."

San Marino's are Los Angeles County's poor little rich schools.

Although the community they serve is one of the wealthiest in the nation, San Marino's public schools are nouveau poor as a result of Proposition 13, shrinking enrollment and other inexorable forces.

Girl on a Yacht

To an outsider, a San Marino with fiscal troubles may bring to mind John P. Marquand's observation that nobody feels sorry for a girl on a yacht. In 1980, the city's median household income was $46,362, in contrast to a countywide average of $17,935. But this year, the posh little enclave of lush lawns and tasteful million-dollar homes has a bare-bones education budget of $9.2 million for 2,750 students.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 25, 1986 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part 9 Page 4 Column 3 Zones Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
A chart accompanying a Sept. 18 Times story on financial problems of San Marino schools mistakenly indicated that the standardized test scores and other measures of school performance represented those for entire school districts. In fact, the figures referred only to the six high schools named.

Thus, San Marino has less to spend per student than other upscale districts such as Beverly Hills, La Canada and Palos Verdes.

Signs of the district's genteel impoverishment are many.

Its 130 teachers are among the most poorly paid in the county, their salaries trailing behind those of such less affluent neighboring school districts as Alhambra and Los Angeles.

On rainy days the city's charming but aging school buildings leak. Because there is no money to repair or replace their roofs, janitors spread sheets of plastic over them at the first sign of a storm.

Shortage of Supplies

The schools are chronically short of construction paper, paper clips, pencils and other supplies. "We don't actually run out, but we come close," one teacher said.

Because of reductions in the custodial and maintenance staffs, classrooms now are cleaned once a week instead of every day. One San Marino teacher has taught her fifth graders to neaten up the classroom carpet between vacuumings by picking up bits of litter with their dampened fingers.

The same teacher uses her own money to buy the 25-cent stickers that have replaced gold stars as coveted marks of elementary-school excellence.

Perhaps because fine public schools are as much a part of the San Marino tradition as the Huntington Library and the citywide ban on restaurant liquor sales, San Marino residents have rallied behind their economically troubled schools.

The community of 13,875 donates hundreds of thousands of dollars outright to the school district each year.

In addition, the residents, who include numerous corporate chief executive officers and at least one former U.S. attorney general, have helped stretch the district's budget by donating large amounts of time and energy. Hundreds of San Marino residents even have proved willing to don old clothes to paint their city's school buildings.

Even so, San Marino has become a no-frills district.

Gone are such familiar educational amenities as wood shop, home economics, choral music, a full-time nurse and professional librarians.

No More German Classes

Latin was salvaged, but German is no longer offered in the high school.

The district even has canceled its subscriptions to the grade-school paper of record, the Weekly Reader.

So far the district's fiscal woes do not seem to have eroded the quality of a San Marino education. The district continues to send 96 out of every 100 graduates to college, including Stanford, Harvard and other prestigious campuses. Its students still get high scores on standardized tests, particularly in mathematics.

But many residents are alarmed, especially in light of the defeat within the last year of two separate ballot measures that would have assessed each San Marino family $145 and provided a modest but reliable additional source of school funding.

The measures were endorsed by the majority of city voters but fell a few dozen votes short of the two-thirds required for passage.

As actor/sportscaster Merlin Olsen, a 17-year resident who supported the measures, explained, "What's frightening to me is the quality of education we've come to lean on is at risk. Part of our identity, part of our appeal as a community, is that we've always had quality schools."

Schools Supt. David Brown agrees that further economic erosion threatens the very nature of San Marino's schools, which traditionally have educated 85% or more of the children in a community where many parents could afford private schools.

"This clearly is not going to be the year that we're going to see a drop-off in quality, but we're close," Brown said. "Who knows how long it can last?"

Brown fears that the district's non-college-bound students already are being shortchanged by the paucity of high school electives. Some class sections are too large, he said, and the reduced counseling staff at the high school has too many students to advise, given the high academic expectations of the community.

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