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Lomita Revisits Fight for School Autonomy : Education: Fed up with the L.A. Unified District's centralized board and controversial policies, some citizens are hopeful that their second bid to break away will succeed.


On a recent evening, Lomita parent Cindy Grant slung a satchel over her shoulder, grabbed a pink clipboard, said goodby to the cat and headed out into the cool air to do battle with the giant.

Her weapons were simple: a pen and a petition that asks prospective signers to support her quest and that of a band of parents and city officials. Her goal, however, is ambitious: to break Lomita away from the giant Los Angeles Unified School District.

Six years after their failed effort to form their own school district, Lomitans are at it again. Under the banner of the Committee to Unify Lomita Schools, activists are trying to drum up support for their view that L.A. Unified is a money-squandering, bureaucratic behemoth that is shortchanging their children's schooling.

"I think it would be nice to have our own school board," Grant said, strolling past the modest stucco homes in this town that sees itself as an oasis of small-town Americana. "We have our own City Council that we can call on and say, 'Hey, what's going on' with this or that. We get immediate action. We don't with L.A. (Unified)."

On this evening, in house after house, the voices of frustration with the district of 640,000 students flowed freely. From Todd Nabours, father of a 22-month-old, who just moved to Lomita from Long Beach: "There are too many kids pushed into classrooms. You're herded in and herded out. When I was in (Banning High) there were 35 kids in some classes." Nabours vowed not to send his son to Los Angeles schools.

From JoAnn Guthrie, preparing to move to Denver partly so her daughter, a third-grader at Lomita Elementary, won't have to go to Los Angeles schools: "Now we have the crime and the gang thing and I don't want her going to junior high here."

And from Mike Ramirez, father of two children in high school and elementary school, who said the year-round calendar interfered with family schedules: "That fiasco with the year-round calendar blew away a lot of schedules we had for vacations. You get the impression they are stabbing in the dark with too many chiefs."

The mobilization for the fight is being done Lomita-style. There are the pizza-night fund-raisers at the local Pizza Hut ($60 raised) and the sales of T-shirts featuring a one-room schoolhouse logo and the inscription: "A brighter future for our children" ($600 raised).

In charge, as he was last time, is Robert Hargrave, a city councilman and a 1956 graduate of Narbonne High in Harbor City, the high school that serves Lomita. He sums up the group's thinking this way: "We want to buy pencils, not condoms."

It is a catchy slogan that for Lomitans says it all about Los Angeles Unified's chronic shortage of supplies and, in their minds, the district's morally corrupt decision to allow high school students access to condoms.

For the committee, a core group of eight organizers with dozens of other active supporters, a school board of Lomitans would ensure that public money is spent where it is needed--in the classroom.

"The district has the entrenchment of those layers of bureaucracy that are driving this system down," Hargrave said. "The $100,000 lobbyist in Sacramento. The $100,000 assistant superintendents. The levels of bureaucracy with special programs. All of those things cost money and when they take that money, it doesn't filter down to the teachers who really need it to teach the kids."

The fight to secede is sure to be tough and long--the committee hopes the new district will open its doors in the fall of 1995.

In 1987, Lomita got to the brink of a secession vote. But the state Board of Education voted 9-1 not to authorize Lomita to hold a binding referendum on seceding from the school district, the last step in the breakaway process.

It was the furthest a school secession movement had advanced since Los Angeles Unified was formed in 1961.

The specter of racial segregation is what killed Lomita's bid. The state board concluded that allowing the predominantly white students of Lomita to leave would stymie desegregation efforts in the Los Angeles district, since minority students bused to Lomita would have to return to heavily minority schools.

Hargrave predicts the race issue will surface this time around, as it has in the San Fernando Valley, where activists and politicians have been pushing for a breakup of the city school system. He acknowledges that some of those supporting secession in Lomita may have racial motives.

"I think that there are people that are racially motivated in Lomita," Hargrave said, adding that some people think, "We don't want those people going to our school."

"I just feel we have to overcome that," Hargrave said, noting that Lomita's minority population, particularly that of Asian-Americans and Latinos, has been growing.

For him and those he knows well, Hargrave said, the issue is strictly local control. Lomita can be provincial, but when it comes to the drive to run its own schools, that may be in its favor, he said.

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