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FIRST PERSON

The Reality Behind the Image of Beverly Hills High

June 17, 1993|R. DAVID STEPHENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; R. David Stephens is an actor and free - lance writer in Toronto. As a member of the Beverly Hills High class of 1964, he was known as Ron Grossman. and

The paint is peeling, the concrete is cracked, the 60-year-old boiler needs replacement, and the ceiling tiles are falling down in the swim gym and the auditorium.

Those were only some of the problems that confronted hundreds of alumni who returned to Beverly Hills High School last weekend for the 65th Anniversary Reunion of all its graduating classes.

As I toured the campus with fellow alums, shock and anger were the prevalent emotions, because what we saw was not the beautiful high school we had attended.

Who would believe that Beverly Hills, of all the cities in the world, would let its only high school fall into such disrepair?

In the '50s and '60s, Beverly Hills had a small-town atmosphere and, according to Time magazine, the best high school in America. Many of our top graduates had become prominent. Nobody even thought of locking their doors, and Uncle Bernie's Toy Store was Rodeo Drive's biggest attraction.

There were about 400 students in my graduating class of 1964. Today, the enrollment is about the same, but what has radically changed is how the school is funded.

In the golden era, of course, the school district got the bulk of its money from local property taxes-- Beverly Hills property taxes. Now, only one-sixth of the budget comes from Beverly Hills, and most of the rest comes from the state. And even though that makes it one of the best-funded school districts in the state, spending per pupil is still below the national average.

Thanks to Proposition 13, any tax to raise additional funds locally must be approved by two-thirds of the voters. Repeated attempts to push through a parcel tax have fallen short in Beverly Hills, which is no surprise; there are many elderly residents on limited incomes, and many residents without children.

The board will try to raise money again in the fall, this time with an $80-million bond issue. In the meantime, the nonprofit Beverly Hills Education Foundation got together with the Alumni Assn. to hold the Anniversary Reunion and ask the alumni for contributions, primarily to "Save the Swim Gym."

This is the gym whose fabled basketball court slides back into the wall to reveal the swimming pool underneath. It has appeared in several feature films, including "It's a Wonderful Life," where an angel helps save Jimmy Stewart's life. Now the gym could use such an angel.

The foundation was hoping to get $100,000 from the sale of T-shirts, videos and hats to some of the school's 30,000 graduates. Unfortunately, only hundreds showed up to visit teachers and old friends, attend a sock hop and pledge "Bucks for Basketball" at the Alumni Tournament.

But as Sunday's events drew to a close, the word circulating the campus was that fund raising was falling far short of the goal. And some of the alumni were saying that they would rather be making contributions to the schools their children were attending.

Still, that didn't stop them from worrying when they looked at the auditorium ceiling and wondered if any tiles would fall on their heads or on the kids when the next assembly takes place, and whose responsibility it is.

As I look at the list of Beverly's famous graduates, particularly in the field of art and music, I feel sad about the fact that the kids in Beverly Hills elementary schools no longer get courses in music or visual arts because of budget cuts.

I am dismayed that the UCLA program that allowed qualified Beverly Hills students to spend part of their senior year taking courses at the university will be ending this year. How is it that these educational advantages, which I received 30 years ago, are no longer available?

And yes, I was very impressed by the high school's planetarium, the theaters, radio and television stations, the library and cafeteria that have been built since I attended. But I was also told of staff cuts and reductions in courses, and it was obvious that the physical structure needs repair.

In the years since I graduated, I've taught in several school districts, and I've seen schools with broken windows and walls spray-painted with graffiti. By comparison, Beverly Hills still looks "mahvelous." But when I went there it was marvelous.

After this reunion, I find it ironic that while "Beverly Hills, 90210" is going up in the ratings, Beverly Hills is going begging, that the students on the TV show are winning while their real-life counterparts are losing.

And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how Beverly Hills managed to produce the numerous distinguished alums who became film stars, musicians, ballerinas, politicians, journalists, authors, doctors and lawyers. The city spent money on their education; and if the citizens aren't willing to do that again, all they will have to celebrate at the next anniversary is the fictional depiction of a successful high school on television.

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