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Merits of Using Bond Funds for New School Debated


SANTA MONICA — Nearly three years ago, Santa Monica voters approved a $75-million bond issue for school improvement, responding to warnings that "leaking roofs, faulty wiring and hidden asbestos threaten the safety of the children throughout the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District." The money was to be used to repair and upgrade deteriorating school buildings.

Now, plans call for nearly $7 million of that money to be spent to build a school in Los Amigos Park.

Critics of the plan complain that the bond funds were not meant for construction and question whether a new school should be built, citing declining enrollment and a more than $11-million expected shortfall for reconstruction projects.

And, they argue, spending the bond money on the new school would mean improvement projects at more than seven other local schools would have to be postponed.

Opposition is scattered but fierce, although most Santa Monicans seem unaware that school plans have taken a new direction since they passed Proposition ES, a measure that, according to the ballot pamphlet, was needed for "urgent needs like asbestos removal, earthquake safety measures, fire safety work, as well as classroom improvements and modernization . . ."

Opponents call the reallocation of funds for the new school "a bait and switch" and argue that it strains credibility and could affect future bond measures.

"In this time of financial crisis, to go ahead with construction of a new school with monies dedicated to reconstruction of districtwide facilities is more than fiscal mismanagement, it's outright scandalous," said John Bodin, a political consultant.

Economist and former planning commissioner Jennifer Polhemus said she thinks that voters who approved the bond issue "are not aware their money is being moved from where they thought it was going to go and into a new school, regardless of whether it is good or bad."

"There is talk of floating another bond issue to make up for 'the problem' (the revenue shortfall). But unless the public feels the funds are being managed very carefully, I don't think they are going to be willing to support another bond issue. 'Need' is not enough."

Polhemus, who said she takes no position on whether the school should be built, said taxpayers already feel burned by the district's decision to use the ES bond money to adapt the middle school in Malibu for the new high school there.

"The perception is that it was a bait-and-switch ploy then, and now people are confused and skeptical that it is happening again."

She noted that the district's decision to use park land for school purposes in a park-poor city is a sore point with some, while others, who have dubbed the planned facility "the yuppie school," fear that the new school is being built to draw permit students (and thus more school funds) and resident students who have fled to private schools in recent years.


The proposed new school is part of a project called the Ocean Park Education Plan, which focuses on four school properties in the southwest area of the city.

After the bond measure was passed in 1990, district officials considered needed renovations in rundown existing facilities. They concluded that it would be more efficient to close both John Muir Elementary School and the Santa Monica Alternative School House (SMASH) and relocate them to a new school, which would be built at Los Amigos Park. The plan called for $4.2 million of the costs to be covered by developing the John Muir site. Muir was to be demolished and the land sold or leased for development of up to 89 housing units, with proceeds funding construction of the new school, but no developer has been found. So planners had to go back to the drawing board.

The current Ocean Park Education Plan calls for:

* Construction of the 660-student campus at the south end of Los Amigos Park (one square block bounded by 5th and 6th streets, Ocean Park Boulevard and Hollister Avenue) to house Muir and SMASH, while preserving the park acreage at the north end for school and public recreation purposes.

The new school would consist of five buildings, some of them two stories, in a pod arrangement. Muir and SMASH would have separate classroom areas, but share cafeteria, auditorium and certain other facilities.

Current activities at the site would be relocated. The private Westside Children's Center is moving to Culver City, the Girls Club could be relocated to the old SMASH site and the district's child-care program headquarters and a maintenance office would be moved to another district site.

* Olympic High, the district's continuation school, and certain adult education programs would be relocated to the Muir site on Ocean Park Boulevard.

* The old SMASH/Washington West site at 2802 4th St. would be used for other district, child-care and related community functions.

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