SIGNAL HILL — Mayor Richard Ceccia made no bones about the intent of the public hearing last week.
In a prepared statement highly critical of the Long Beach Unified School District, Ceccia asked residents to come forward with their concerns about the district's plan to build an elementary school next to an oil refinery.
The request brought out an interesting mix of people and reactions.
Mike Miller likened an explosion at the MacMillan Ring-Free Oil Co. to hell. He said he should know. He was seriously injured in an accident at the site in September, 1986. That accident killed one of his co-workers.
Miller, 32, said he would never again work at a refinery, nor would he want his two children anywhere near one.
Another speaker, Ron Hurte, said the issue is not the oil refinery, but the city's opposition to a school on the proposed site. Hurte is the former headmaster of the now-closed Southern California Military Academy where the district wants to build the new school. He noted that the military academy existed next to the refinery for 63 years without a problem.
Signal Hill has been on the losing side of a court feud with the school district. But city officials say they are losing on technical matters and not on the merits of their case. The city has appealed a Superior Court judge's August ruling for the school district.
The city wants the district to conduct an environmental impact study before it builds a new school, contending that such a study would show the site that the district has chosen is unsafe. But the district, arguing that the site is safe, says it is exempt from conducting a review because a school already exists at the site.
The debate has become bitter. Each side says the other is greedy and has ulterior motives. Each accuses the other of not having children's interests at heart. And in the midst of both council and school board races, the matter has become an election issue.
City officials say the district rushed its project on the 5.4-acre site on Cherry Avenue to meet a deadline for funding. According to the city, district administrators refuse to conduct an environmental study because, if they did, it would show that a school should not be built there.
"All they have to do to quiet this down is have an environmental impact report," said John L. Fellows III, an attorney representing the city.
District administrators say the demand for an environmental report is a delaying tactic. They say Signal Hill doesn't want the school because the city wants to use the site for a commercial uses to increase its tax base.
City officials respond that only about 200 feet fronting Cherry Avenue could be used for commercial purposes, bringing in little additional tax revenue.
Residents also have complained that their small city does not need another school, and the children who would be bused in would increase traffic in an already congested area. But school supporters criticize that stance, saying that the military school site was the best choice of the locations available, and they point to a crucial need to relieve overcrowding in the district.
"A year ago, they (council members) told staff (members) to do anything they need to stop a school there," said Mary Anne Mays, the deputy director of facilities funding for the school district.
There was no question even from the onset of the Tuesday night meeting that it was bound to turn confrontational. On one side of the room, a small hand-printed sign reading Signal Hill City Council was posted above the five council members. On the opposing end, a similar sign reading Long Beach Unified School District hung over empty chairs.
Pointing to the vacant table, Ceccia said district trustees have refused to cooperate with the city. School district representatives responded that it would be improper for the board members to attend because of the pending litigation.
In what was probably the most heated moment of the evening, Ceccia repeatedly asked the district's consultant if he would recommend doing an environmental study on the site. Chambers responded that he was not hired to decide that issue.