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Sam Hall Kaplan

Schools Fail to Justify Home Grab

August 02, 1987

When 53 homes were destroyed in the fire that swept Baldwin Hills in July, 1985, it was a major tragedy, with the anguish of the families prompting public concern and news for weeks.

But just imagine if that fire had not been controlled after it had destroyed nearly 2,000 homes and displaced 5,000 persons, what the magnitude of the tragedy, and response, would have been.

Well, that is the estimated number of homes that will be destroyed and persons displaced under the ill-conceived expansion plans of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

And beyond the obscene numbers, it is a far greater tragedy than the Baldwin Hills fire for the reason that much of it could be avoided with a modicum of common sense, public courtesy, conscientious planning and imaginative design.

Some takings may be necessary to meet future school needs. But so far, the district has shown little compassion and less imagination in developing viable alternatives to blockbusting and bulldozing.

The taking of homes should be considered only when all other possibilities to accommodate the expansion have been exhausted.

That the school district, reacting to an initial wave of community protests, reduced the number of its proposed expanded and new sites from 42 to 30 is a clear indication of the arbitrary planning process of the agency. Were those 12 sites really needed in the first place? Does that mean if there had not been protests the houses there would have been condemned and demolished? Why were they spared and not others?

This has led to further questions, such as what really are the district's expansion needs? What are those needs based on? How come the district--that a few years ago was closing dozens of schools--now needs to expand so precipitously?

Between February, 1982, and June, 1984, the district closed 22 schools. And here it is, a few years later, and the district is scrambling to assemble new sites. That does not engender confidence in the district's planning process.

One hopes the current scrambling is not just because the state has made available a few hundred million dollars of construction funds, the use of which could nicely pad a bureaucracy from periodic budget cuts.

Could much of this plan be motivated not by the projected educational needs of the city's children, but by the nefarious need of bureaucrats to justify their own existence and an ambitious construction program to pay off some political debts?

The targeted communities also have been asking questions, such as why homes must be taken for school playgrounds, which are often used for parking for teachers and administrators, when streets could be closed during school hours for the same purposes?

Also, why can't the district utilize existing facilities better through renovations, sensitively designed additions and redistricting, or by the imaginative recycling of commercial and industrial structures?

There have been reams of excellent questions by various concerned community groups and local representatives, in particular Councilman Michael Woo and State Sen. David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), but few answers by the district.

Also starting to ask questions about the expansion, as well as they should, are the city Planning Commission and Planning Department. The district's proposed construction program has ramifications far beyond education that should be of deep concern to the city's planners, as well as others involved with shaping the city.

In response to an earlier column in which I accused the district of not doing its homework in coming up with a projected increase of 75,578 students to justify the need for new and expanded schools, I received from a consultant firm identified as Criterion Inc. a thick demographic study it had done for the district.

Along with the report came a letter in which the Dallas-based firm declared "we are willing to schedule a meeting with you so we can discuss our methodological approach in detail."

Not particularly anxious to be sandbagged by bureaucrats and their hired guns, but wanting an objective opinion, I asked a respected educator who recently retired as a senior administrator after 30 years with the New York City Board of Education, to review the report.

While declaring that the demographic analysis was interesting, he said it lacked perspective and raised more questions than it answered, such as the basis of the mathematical formulas used to project the statistics into hard figures in the future. "You really can play games with that to serve the interests of those paying for the study," said the educator.

He noted that in making projections, the study did not appear to take into consideration shifting family structures and values, such as the birthrate among Latinos most likely declining as their socio-economic status rises, or the placement of their children in private or parochial schools.

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