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District Tables Proposal to Reopen Middle Schools

November 24, 1988|LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

NORWALK — The Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District board has unexpectedly reversed itself and killed a plan to reopen middle schools.

The board, which had virtually approved a plan to reopen two middle schools, effectively killed the plan this week by failing to vote on it.

The middle-school issue, which had been studied and debated in the school district for more than 10 months, is dead unless most board members decide to resurrect it, said Jesse Luera, board president.

Uncertainties over financing apparently led to the decision. The board had planned to seek voter approval of a special property tax to help pay for the middle-school plan, but some board members said they believed the ballot measure would have failed to receive a two-thirds majority for success.

"An election costing several thousand dollars would have been a waste of the district's money. I believe the voters would not have passed the tax," board member Kenneth Welch said.

He added, however, that board members had not discussed the middle-school proposal before their meeting Monday. The board had previously approved the middle-school plan in principle and had asked administrators to draw up a plan for reopening the schools.

Board member William Campbell told an audience of more than 100 at the meeting: "We should stay where we are. The middle-school issue is dead."

Board member Gary Jones made a motion to approve the plan, but the motion did not receive a second. He said later that he also wants to put the plan on "the back burner" until the district could pay for middle schools but that he made the motion simply to encourage further discussion.

"I was honestly surprised that there was no vote taken," he said. "But I'm glad the board had the foresight to let it die. I believe it would have been a cop-out for the board to go ahead with this, knowing it (a tax measure) would fail."

Under the middle-school plan, two schools would have been reopened in 1990 for grades 6 to 8. Enrollment would have been voluntary. A special property tax or a flat tax of about $50 a year on parcels of property would have paid for the plan.

Corvallis School in Norwalk and Benton School in La Mirada would have been reopened to accommodate up to 1,400 students. The schools, closed more than 10 years ago because of declining enrollment, are leased to private organizations.

District Supt. Bruce Newlin said he supports middle schools but believes that the board "took a responsible position. It was a tough one, but the bottom line the board was asking was, 'Could we afford it?' The most important thing is what goes on in the classroom. The grade configuration is less important."

Supporters of the middle-school concept vowed to keep pursuing the issue and predicted that it would be raised in future school board elections. Four of the seven board members will be up for reelection in November, 1989: board President Luera and members Bill White, Welch and Jones.

"It is not a dead issue," said Pat Goulden, a parent who was on a 26-member advisory committee appointed by the school board to study the middle-school concept. Goulden hinted that some of the board members may face challenges if they decide to seek reelection.

Pat Shelton, another parent and committee member, said: "I'm in shock. I expected them to take some action."

The advisory committee's chairman, Richard A. Ruether, said he was disappointed: "Some board members, I won't say all, are content with the status quo. They are not willing to spend the money for middle schools. The kids are being shortchanged."

The committee had initially recommended that the board set up middle schools for grades seven and eight, then add the sixth grade later.

The committee had also endorsed a more ambitious board plan to convert five elementary schools to middle schools. But the board scrapped that plan after several parents protested the loss of elementary schools.

Ruether said the panel also believed that the parcel tax would fail but that the board and administration should be looking at other ways to pay for middle schools out of the district's $60 million budget.

Jones said the district would be hard pressed to find money in its budget to pay for middle schools. He said 87% of the district budget is earmarked for salaries and fringe benefits.

But he said the recent passage of Proposition 98, the statewide school financing measure, might provide money that could be used for middle schools.

School officials had closed 15 schools, including all seven middle schools, more than a decade ago because of declining enrollment.

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