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Critics Say Crossing Guard Cuts Put Safety on the Line : Services: The county eliminated funding in July, but the action went nearly unnoticed until now--when schools are about to reopen.


SOUTHEAST AREA — Terri Halstead and her South Whittier neighbors fought for years to make their streets safer for children walking to school. They won battles to get the county to install traffic signals at three intersections after crosswalk accidents claimed the lives of Halstead's daughter and a crossing guard.

Now an unanticipated problem threatens to make the streets of this community and many others in Southeast Los Angeles County more dangerous than ever. The County Board of Supervisors ended all funding for crosswalk guards in a budget-cutting move in late July that attracted little notice.

The decision will not affect crossing guards provided by cities, which most are. But it does imperil the service at county intersections that lie outside city lines. School districts covering large portions of unincorporated territory are especially hard hit.

The Compton Unified School District, for example, stands to lose about a third of its crossing guards. The city of Compton pays for 20 guards, while the county used to fund nine. The guards shepherded thousands of children through intersections in the northern part of the school system, which lies beyond Compton's city border.

The Los Nietos School District, which serves neighborhoods near Whittier and Santa Fe Springs, lost funding for 7 of 9 crossing guards. The Whittier City School District lost seven of 14, the East Whittier City School District 11 of 23, and Montebello Unified School District four of 25.

Halstead's school system, the South Whittier School District, serves territory that is virtually all unincorporated. The district stands to lose 12 of 13 crossing guards, officials said.

"All the schools in South Whittier are affected," said Halstead, who ran successfully for the school board after the October, 1990, death of her daughter. "We buried her on her fifth birthday. I don't want any other family to go through the turmoil and hurt my family has gone through. I don't want to go to any more funerals, thank you."

Halstead and other district officials were particularly critical of the county for approving the funding cut so close to the start of school. Most school systems did not learn the news until they received an Aug. 4 notice from the County Office of Education.

"We should have had time to fight this," Halstead said. "Nobody had a chance to voice their opinion or say anything."

Halstead sent petitions to the 34 affected school systems so they could gather signatures to lodge their own protest with the county.

"I'm hoping all hell will break loose and people will stand up for their rights," she said.

Displeasure over the supervisors' decision has filtered back to them. The county eliminated the $1.7-million program after the state informed officials that crossing guards were not a required county service.

"It was part of a long laundry list of mandates that the state said we no longer had to do," said Ollie Blanning, a deputy for Supervisor Mike Antonovich. "We needed those funds in order to do those things we were required to do and keep the hospitals and Sheriff's Departments open."

Cutting crossing guards was one of many budget trims. Some county officials have called the cut an inadvertent mistake.

On Aug. 24, the board passed a motion by Antonovich asking staff to discuss sharing costs with area school districts. He has suggested that the county could pick up 20% of the cost with savings from a proposed 8 1/4% salary reduction for county employees.

County staff is expected to give a progress report to the board on Tuesday. Administrators said last week, however, that they have been unable to locate any funds for crossing guards.

County officials have suggested that school districts bear the obligation of funding crossing guards because schools suffered less from the state budget crunch this year than county governments. School district administrators counter that cities and counties should pay for highway safety measures, whether they be speed-limit signs, traffic signals or crossing guards.

Some school officials said they have little alternative but to pick up the cost.

"My main thinking is the children," said Faustino J. Ledesma, an administrator for Montebello Unified. He is particularly concerned about children who walk to Potrero Heights Elementary School, north of Montebello. The school sits on busy Hill Drive. The crosswalk is near a crest in the road where several cars have gone out of control.

"I would do everything possible to make sure there's a guard there," Ledesma said. "It has to be covered by somebody. It would mean something else goes. No way could you leave those kids unprotected."

Officials from the Los Nietos and East Whittier districts said they felt the same way.

But not all school officials think they can afford either the service or any legal liability that might be attached.

Los Angeles Unified, which lost funding for 43 crossing guards, is picking up the cost for now, but cannot afford to do so indefinitely, said Bob Ranck, coordinator of school traffic and safety education.

Community correspondent John Pope contributed to this story.

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