EL MONTE — Less than 24 hours after concerned parents expressed continuing opposition to closing Gidley Elementary School, Von Grocery Co. announced that it will not buy the 11-acre school site to expand its corporate headquarters.
"We are withdrawing our offer on the Gidley property," Vons spokeswoman Mary McAboy said Wednesday. "We don't wish to be the wedge which separates our community."
McAboy said a public forum on the proposal to close Gidley, held Tuesday night at Columbia School, persuaded Vons to look elsewhere for room to grow.
"It was causing such conflict in the community that we felt it was in the best interest of everyone to withdraw the offer," McAboy said.
McAboy said the supermarket chain will continue its search for property in the San Gabriel Valley, including other sites in El Monte.
A public relations consultant for the El Monte City School District said Wednesday that the district was stunned by the announcement. "It comes as quite a surprise to us," the consultant said. "This appears to be the end of this proposal."
Tuesday's forum included a parent's prophetic quip that "if Gidley can survive an act of God, it can certainly survive an act of Vons." Gidley was undamaged in last week's earthquake.
The remark was heard in the course of a two-hour hearing on the proposed closing, called by the school district. At the meeting, pro-Gidley speakers urged that the neighborhood school remain open, while opponents warned that Vons might move out of El Monte if the company could not expand its headquarters on Lower Azusa Road. About 200 people attended the forum.
Many of the two dozen speakers referred to full-page ads urging the sale that Vons ran last week in a local newspaper.
Kenneth Sekella, senior vice president for personnel for Vons, acknowledged that Vons "has a vested interest in the project." He added, however, that sale of the school site to Vons and relocation of its 850 students would be "in the best interest of the children, the community and Vons."
Sekella said the acquisition "will ensure that Vons stays in the city."
The executive noted, as did the company's ads, that Vons contributes about $750,000 to the city annually in property taxes and employs about 2,300 people in the area.
"Vons is the No. 1 employer in the city," said Sekella.
Those opposed to the sale criticized Vons for what one called a "thinly veiled threat" to move elsewhere if it could not acquire the school property. Parent Robert Sayer told the school board that it should be less concerned about Vons and more concerned about providing quality education.
Gidley School has been the subject of controversy since April, when the public learned that school district staff members had been meeting with Vons personnel to discuss the possible sale of the property.
Parents and others who want Gidley to remain open formed a Save Our School (SOS) Committee. On Tuesday, committee member Steve Hake argued against selling a school in a district that suffers from crowded classrooms. "Why would you ever want to sell something that you could never replace?" he asked.
Although the property has not been appraised recently, it is estimated to be worth about $2 million. The district says relocating Gidley's students, probably to nearby Rio Vista School, would cost between $5 million and $6 million. That money could come from the creation of an El Monte redevelopment area that would include the Vons property and other businesses, supporters of the sale have proposed.
At Tuesday's meeting, Susan Matchett summarized the report of a Gidley/Vons study committee formed by the district in June. Last month the committee, chaired by Matchett, voted 4 to 2 to recommend that the school be sold.
The committee said that if Gidley is closed, the students should be sent to Rio Vista School. It also urged the district to consider an agreement with the city whereby Rio Vista Park would be used only by students during school hours, responding to parents' concerns that the park is a hangout for undesirables.
Although the controversy has become heated in the past, Tuesday's meeting was low key.
Robert V. Peviani, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of closure, spoke only briefly. Peviani said the district had failed in its obligation to keep the public informed of any negotiations over the property. He also said he was hurt by opponents who called him a "radical."
"I'm just a parent in the Gidley area trying to look after my four children," Peviani said.
Many of those arguing that the school should be closed said they were concerned about heavy traffic around Gidley. The study committee has recommended that the school board and the city discuss traffic safety in the area "whatever the outcome of the proposed project."
Several parents said Gidley School should be retained because of its high quality. "I bought the house so my daughter could walk to the school," said Gidley-area homeowner Bob Graham. "It's a good school."
Several speakers described themselves as employees of Vons. One, Jim Reynolds, said: "Vons isn't a monster. Vons is a good guy."
Contacted by telephone on Wednesday, Peviani expressed cautious enthusiasm for Vons' decision. "I hope they really mean it," he said. "I want to see it from them in writing."