SIGNAL HILL — The parade started precisely at 2 p.m.
Uniformed in blue pants with bright red stripes, 350 boys stepped smartly in rows to the rhythmic cadence of drums while an army of video cameras whirred from the sidelines. Seated in the bleachers, parents and alumni looked on with palpable pride.
"We've come to every dress parade," said Ted Davis of Downey, whose 14-year-old son, Teddy, has attended the Southern California Military Academy for three years. "He's done so well here--the school has been a real help."
Said Kathy Spire of Norco: "This is the best school (my son) has ever attended."
On this day, however, their pride was tinged with grief.
For 63 years the academy has been a local institution, a place where boys from kindergarten through ninth grade could get a private Christian education steeped in the values of military tradition. Now all that was about to change. Sold to the Long Beach Unified School District, which plans to construct an elementary school at the site, the academy is closing in June. This was the next-to-last dress parade, a special event to which alumni had been invited to bid their farewells.
"It's sad," said Tom Welch, 49, a Huntington Beach development manager who attended the academy from 1943 to 1947. "Sixty years is a long time; it's a shame it can't go on for another 100. I'm not beyond having a tear in my eye."
Across the street, however, grief of another kind was evident. Here, working in the garage print shop he has owned for 37 years, Bob Swagerty mused about what the future might hold. "Signal Hill doesn't need another (public) elementary school," he declared. "It's just going to be a busing school."
Added his wife, Millie: "My flowers will probably all be picked."
Their concerns are echoed by the Signal Hill City Council, which recently obtained a preliminary injunction barring demolition of the old academy until after July 8, when a hearing is scheduled. At issue: whether the school district, which already holds title to the property, can build the proposed elementary school without a study to determine its environmental impact.
District officials say there will be no effect on the neighborhood because all they want to do is replace one school with another. The City Council points to a variety of possible ill effects: noise, increased traffic, loss of income the city might receive if the site could be developed commercially, and the inconsistency of having a public elementary school near an area the city plans to redevelop.
"Long Beach rammed this down our throat," said Signal Hill Mayor Richard Ceccia. In addition to filing the lawsuit to delay demolition, the city has hired a lobbyist to persuade the state Appropriations Board in Sacramento to reconsider its decision to fund a new school at the site.
Countered Long Beach school Supt. E. Tom Giugni: "We don't see how the operation of a public school is any different from that of a private school. The only losers if we don't have a school there will be the community and the youngsters."
The 5.4-acre site at 2065 Cherry Ave. is one of three selected by the district for new elementary schools. The others are land owned by Long Beach City College next to its Pacific Coast Campus and land holding district maintenance and warehouse facilities near Willow Avenue. "School sites within the (area) are not readily available," said Giugni, whose overcrowded 65,000-student district is growing at a rate of 1,500 students a year.
The proposed Signal Hill elementary school--which the district hopes to complete in three to five years--would have about 250 more students than the military academy's current 350, Giugni said. But he added that two factors would offset this increase: School buses would not be housed on campus, as they are now, and no students would live on campus, as about 100 military students do.
"We're really trying to find sites that will have the least disruption to homeowners and businesses," the superintendent said. "Signal Hill is probably the best of all we looked at."
District officials maintain that an environmental impact report is unnecessary because neither the proposed use nor the capacity of the land will substantially change. Signal Hill officials disagree. They charge the district with being insensitive to the city's concerns and with trying to circumvent normal procedures to ram the project through.
"We had a really good relationship with the military academy," Ceccia said. "(Dealing with the district) has been a pain."
If there is one certainty in all the confusion, though, it is that the academy will close for good June 10, when its school year ends.