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Protests Build in Oxnard Over Plan to Raze Grade School

December 08, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

A proposal to demolish a school in Oxnard's poorest neighborhood has upset residents there and emerged as an issue in a contract dispute between teachers and Oxnard School District trustees.

Under the proposal, which was disclosed at a school board meeting last week, the district would demolish the 48-year-old Ramona School and replace it with a structure at its present location or another site in the Colonia area at a cost of up to $7 million.

If district trustees approve the plan, the school would be razed within 2 years, Supt. Norm Brekke said.

"I don't think the community will accept a substandard school in the Colonia," he said. "And I don't think they should accept one anywhere."

Among teachers, who are deadlocked in salary negotiations, some question the need to demolish Ramona, where 600 students attend kindergarten through third grade.

They blame district officials for years of neglect at the school, and call the district's recent repair efforts shoddy, pointing to moisture bubbles in newly painted walls, wash basins installed too high for children, and windows that were painted over rather than caulked.

But demolition, they argue, would be the most wasteful blunder and just another example of the district's mismanagement.

"If they had maintained it in the first place, they wouldn't have to tear it down," said Ramona kindergarten teacher Sheryl Gonzalez.

Opponents of the demolition place the lion's share of the blame on trustee Jack Fowler, the subject of a recall drive that was sparked by the Oxnard Educators Assn., which represents the district's teachers.

The association maintains that Fowler influences budget decisions more than any trustee and has been particularly insensitive to requests for repairs at Ramona.

"He's the one who talks the hardest and the coldest," said Stella Tirado, a former Ramona aide whose two children attended the school and whose grandson is a student there.

Fowler and other district officials deny that they have neglected the school and cite recent improvements to walls, fences, heaters, restrooms and the teacher's parking lot. But they nevertheless say the school should come down.

"It's like an old car," said Dennis Johnson, Ramona's principal. "As soon as you fix one thing, something else breaks."

District officials point to the school's roof, for example, which has been repeatedly repaired over the years but continues to leak, largely because of a row of clerestory windows that were never properly fitted.

One section of the roof was repaired in 1981 at a cost of $20,000, said Jim Ferguson, the district's director of maintenance. Four years later, the same section had to be repaired at a cost of $6,000.

District officials said they proposed demolishing the school in the 1960s, but ran into public opposition. Since then, renovation has proven too costly, Brekke said.

"The only thing that would have been adequate would have been structural renovation that would have been tantamount to rebuilding the building, and we just didn't have the funds," he said.

In a heated exchange 2 years ago, Tirado brought the school's decay to the attention of the trustees. And much has been fixed.

The once-dingy cafeteria has a coat of new blue paint. Fumigation has rid classrooms of the termites that used to drop on students' heads. Six bathrooms have been remodeled. Mold has been scraped from walls that were once moist from the perennial leaks in the roof.

On the other hand, dry rot and termites have weakened the school's structure, Brekke said. Plaster patches scar the exterior of the building, which is scheduled to be painted in February, and some windows were painted over when district officials decided that blinds would be too expensive.

"If you listen to some people, you get the impression that it's a dismal dungeon," Brekke said. "It's not as bad as some people have indicated. But it is structurally inadequate, and it's deteriorating."

Many district officials view the controversy surrounding the demolition proposal as "a lot of union hype," in the words of the principal.

"This whole problem has been exacerbated by the recall effort," Johnson said. "Obviously, this has been used as fuel by the union."

Teachers deny that their complaints are motivated by anything but concern for the school.

Teachers' complaints almost always coincide with salary negotiations because those talks often last much of the year, said Gonzalez, the kindergarten teacher.

In any case, the discussion has clearly touched a raw nerve in the Colonia, where some families have sent three generations to Ramona.

Gonzalez called Ramona "an anchor" for the poor, Latino neighborhood.

"This is our landmark," said Martha Rodriguez. A graduate of Ramona and an aide there, she also is the mother of two Ramona graduates and two present students.

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