Oxnard School District officials thought they had their hands full persuading voters to saddle themselves with a $40-million bond issue for new schools in April, but getting city approval for schools on Oxnard's largest undeveloped chunk of land is proving no easier.
Three local agencies--the school district, the Oxnard City Council and a citizens advisory committee updating the city's general plan--have been at odds over construction of an elementary school and a junior high school on agricultural land just north of the Colonia, Oxnard's barrio.
At issue is the question of whether the surrounding development proposed to defray the schools' expense will end up luring an excessive number of new residents, further overcrowding Oxnard's already packed classrooms.
School officials, who are pressing developers to donate land for the schools, dismiss that scenario. However, the City Council and citizens groups are wary of such gifts, fearing that developers will use them to wring unreasonable concessions from the city.
"The bottom line is that if we accept a donation of land in exchange for concessions in density, then we're right back where we started--with more kids than we have schools for," said Stewart Mimm, a member of the General Plan Advisory Committee.
Limit on Facilities
District Supt. Norman Brekke disagrees. While the district can pay the $3.7 million for school land, that expenditure would "limit us in the number of classrooms and school facilities that will be available," he said.
Siding with the school district, the council agreed in principle Tuesday to open the square-mile area for development, rather than waiting the three years that city planners had envisioned.
The move means that the school district could begin construction in 18 months--if a compromise can be struck among the schools, city officials, area landowners and neighborhood groups.
City officials expect the most heated debates to begin in six months, when they decide the density of the residential development and the scope of commercial development to be proposed by 14 landowners in the area.
Already, a consultant representing several of them, Dennis Hardgrave, has indicated that his clients would consider donating the land the school district wants. However, their development plans would place many more residents in the area than are envisioned by the city, the school district and the General Plan Advisory Committee.
2,800 Units Proposed
The advisory committee has recommended no more than 1,542 residential units, with no associated commercial development. But Tuesday, Hardgrave proposed 2,800 units as well as 40 acres of commercial property.
It doesn't help matters that representatives from neighborhoods on either side of the proposed development, which is bounded by Oxnard Boulevard, Gonzales Road, Rose Avenue and a proposed realignment of Colonia Road, already have expressed reservations.
Residents of the Colonia have complained that the city has not sought the approval of their neighborhood council. There is "an undercurrent of fear" that the new neighborhood will price out most Hispanics and become "a white hole" with segregated schools, said City Councilman Manuel Lopez.
Meanwhile, residents of the Rio Lindo neighborhood to the north, who have fought a much smaller residential development, plan to be no more hospitable to the new one, which would pour additional traffic onto already congested conduits such as Oxnard Boulevard and the Rose and Rice Avenue interchanges of the Ventura Freeway.
"My understanding was that when the community passed a $40-million bond, we were helping the district build more schools to alleviate overcrowding--not to encourage more housing development to bring in more students," Eleanor Branthoover, Rio Lindo neighborhood council leader, told the council Tuesday.
The land borders property being eyed for other projects, which promises to further muddy the waters. School officials have argued that the development cannot be considered independently of plans to build the new St. John's Regional Medical Center and a new high school nearby.
School officials have defended the choice by saying that the Gonzales Road property is the only undeveloped tract within city limits that is large enough for the two schools, which will span 37 acres.
While the district has the authority to condemn property, school officials have said they are reluctant to do so because of the displacement and tensions that would result in the Colonia, the top candidate for condemnation.
Less Need for Busing
District officials have also argued that building the new schools in a new neighborhood will lessen the need for busing because Colonia children could walk to them. They anticipate that the development would attract the sort of white, upscale residents who live near the Westside elementary schools where the predominantly Latino children from the Colonia are bused.