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Plan to Close W. Covina High School Draws Fire

January 24, 1988|CRAIG QUINTANA | Times Staff Writer

Fernando Molina seemed to sum up the feelings of hundreds of others crowded into the West Covina High School auditorium.

"Nobody wants to go to a 10-year reunion for a school that doesn't exist anymore," the West Covina High senior said last week.

Molina was among about 350 angry students, parents, teachers and others who rallied against a proposal to close West Covina High School and merge the student body with its cross-town rival as a cost-cutting measure.

Like many of the others, Molina argued that if any school must be closed, it should be Edgewood High School, not West Covina.

Some speakers also voiced concerns about the social problems of merging two student populations.

"I'm thinking how a rivalry that's been built up so many years will become palsy-walsy overnight," said parent Pat Micangioli.

But Diane Babashoff, whose daughter is a freshman cheerleader at West Covina High, saw such rivalries as "petty" compared to the district's financial straits.

"Put rivalry aside," Babashoff said after the meeting. "We're going to have to make changes. When you consider the problems we're up against, talk of rivalry gets quite silly." Earlier in the week, the district took under consideration proposals to close West Covina High along with four other schools. West Covina would become either a middle school or a junior high school.

Hollencrest and Willowood intermediate schools and Cortez and Merced elementary schools might also be closed under the proposals by the School Use Planning Committee.

Would Save Money

The closures could save the district up to $1.7 million, less any costs restructuring would entail, according to the committee. The district had to borrow $3.3 million from the state to cover a $2.6-million deficit and operating expenses. The closures, plus $1 million in other cuts, are needed to stay out of the red, school officials said.

The district has set a Feb. 9 deadline to decide which schools to close.

At Wednesday's meeting, set by the district to explain the proposed closures, Leslie Etheridge, a junior at West Covina, argued that the public should decide which high school to close. Like most of the others, she pleaded with school officials to keep West Covina High School open.

"I know it's an emotional issue," said Bill Gardner, a West Covina High shop teacher. He argued that the committee recommendation overlooked his school's better shop facilities. "I would go to Edgewood in a minute if it was as good. As far as we're concerned, West Covina High School is the place to be."

Critic Applauded

Some speakers criticized school officials for the financial crisis. Alicia Prieto drew thunderous applause when she suggested that the district office be closed and sold to cover expenses.

"The problem . . . originated at the district level," she said. "Let them feel the pinch."

Poor management and excessive expenditures for developing computer software have been blamed for the deficit. After the crisis came to light, three school board incumbents lost their seats in November.

District officials said they expected debate over the proposed closure of West Covina High to become heated.

"Anytime the subject is as painful as this, you're going to have a lot of emotional response," said Jane D. Gawronski, superintendent of the West Covina Unified School District. "What we heard was mostly concerned people speaking from the heart.

"You don't take something out of the community without them taking it personally," said Gawronski, who was hired after former Supt. Donald Todd resigned in June.

Danny Grunwald, a junior at West Covina High, told the officials at Wednesday's meeting that students should have a say in the outcome.

"I want you to recognize us, find out what we think, what our opinions are," Grunwald said. "I don't think an effort was made to ask the students" about the closures.

'Ideas Can Change'

"They (board members) are the ones who will make the final decision," he said, "but if we are organized (in speaking out), their ideas can change." Molina, the senior from West Covina High, suggested making Edgewood High the middle school because it is next to Willowood and could be more easily converted.

Parent Fred Fowlkes questioned the district's motives for combining the high schools.

"I have an idea that the decision is coming down to dollars," he said, adding: "What price for education?"

West Covina High Principal Doug Koel urged the crowd not to blame the three new school board members elected in November for past problems.

"If we have one (high) school, we'll go with one school," he said. "Even though some of us may be unhappy with the prospect of consolidating schools, some good could come of it."

Varied Education

Members of the School Use Planning Committee have said merging schools will help the district offer a better and more varied education to students, who will no longer attend under-utilized schools. The high schools, which are operating at half capacity, cannot offer a full-range curriculum, according to the committee.

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