MONROVIA — Citing traffic concerns and the need to find a more permanent location, the City Council Tuesday denied a conditional use permit for a Head Start preschool to operate in a portable classroom at Olive Avenue Park.
The council's 4-1 vote, with Mayor Pro Tem Mary Wilcox dissenting, concluded nearly three hours of sometimes-emotional public testimony.
Sponsors of the program have been searching for a new location since October because the current site at Plymouth Elementary School does not meet state licensing requirements. The program director warned that, if the council rejected the park site, the program may no longer be offered in Monrovia.
The Planning Commission had recommended that the project be denied, while the Community Services Commission had unanimously recommended that it be approved.
Children of Poverty
The federally funded program serves children in low-income families, abused or neglected children, or those with handicaps.
Fifteen people, including a mother-to-be who wants a Head Start in town when her child reaches school age, spoke in favor of the proposed site. Twelve residents opposed it.
The school site would have taken up 7% of the 1 1/2-acre park. Part of a jogging path would have had to be removed to accommodate the facility, which would have included a playground with a sandbox and swing set.
The 20-student school, which initially would have operated five days a week from 8 a.m. to noon, eventually might have accommodated another 20 children in the afternoon.
"It's a public park, not a school ground," objected resident Frank Holmes Jr., who collected about 70 signatures from neighbors for a petition opposing the site.
"A quiet park is an amenity, but we would have 20 to 30 youngsters guaranteed running around any time of day," he said in an interview before the meeting. He also feared the building would attract vandals.
'They Don't Want Us'
Residents around the park "talk like they own the park," said Robin Etherton, an unemployed single mother with a son in Head Start. "I think they don't want us there because we're on welfare."
Saying he was not convinced an adequate search had been conducted for the best site, Mayor Bob Bartlett said he was concerned the city would have to restore the park if the program failed.
"I've lived on that dead end," said Councilman Bill Card, agreeing with residents that the cul-de-sac next to the proposed school site was too small to comfortably accommodate increased traffic.
Councilman John Nobrega said a more permanent facility must be found for the school. Citing the limited park space in the city, "we need to hold on to what park we have," he said.
The park is close to most of the families that will benefit from Head Start, said George Nalbach, president of the Monrovia Child-Care Consortium and clinical director of Santa Anita Family Service, a mental health counseling center.
If the site was not approved, the alternative would be no Head Start, he told the council. The consortium represents 24 agencies including churches and service clubs.
Head Start was notified in January that it would have to temporarily vacate its home at Plymouth Elementary School in May when the site undergoes renovations, according to Donald Montgomery, superintendent of the Monrovia Unified School District.
Options, the nonprofit child care agency that runs the program, has been looking for a place to relocate Head Start since last fall, said Options Executive Director Cliff Marcussen.
The Alhambra-based organization operates eight other Head Start centers in the San Gabriel Valley and northeast Los Angeles. It also runs a child care center at Plymouth that will remain at the school.
Unless Options finds another site soon, $56,000 it was to receive from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services toward the purchase of a portable classroom would revert to the government, he said. That department administers the Head Start program nationwide.
Options was informed in October that the facilities at Plymouth do not meet state Department of Social Services licensing standards for a permanent Head Start license, Marcussen said. One problem, he said, is that the state requires that a bathroom be immediately adjacent to the room where Head Start programs are run. The program has been serving about 20 children at the school for two years under a temporary license.
The park site was ideal because at least 60% of the youngsters now in Head Start live within an eight-block area around the park on Mayflower Avenue, Marcussen said.
Ramona Lopez, whose son is in Head Start, submitted a petition Tuesday signed by 296 Monrovians favoring the park site. She was indignant that residents complained about uprooting six trees to accommodate the classroom.
"A child's education is more important than a tree," said Lopez, who carries her baby on the bus with her when she takes her son to Plymouth every day. Because she does not own a car, Lopez said her son will not be able to continue in Head Start when the Plymouth program stops.
The 3-year-old was enrolled at a younger age than usual because he had a speech handicap. "Now he talks terrific," said Lopez, who lives about a block from the park. "He even wants to go on weekends."