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School Board Candidates Tackle Issue of Crowding

November 06, 1995|DANICA KIRKA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ACTON — The fifth- and sixth-grade lunch shift at Acton Elementary School was served up plates of chili and cartons of chocolate milk. But one group of 10-year-old girls weren't much interested in eating.

It was just after 11 a.m., after all. Snack time was only an hour ago.

"They put it too early," pouted Kelly Rapoport, as chili congealed on white foam trays.

But the lunch shifts were only beginning. Hundreds of children were to be crammed on the benches three more times before 1 p.m. The staggered schedule is just one way Acton Principal Margaret Gonder grapples with the lack of space in her school. Designed for 500 students, the campus now houses 933.

"It's a challenge," sighs Gonder. "But we have wonderful children."

The Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District, like many others in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, is struggling with severely overcrowded campuses, where temporary classroom trailers often outnumber permanent schoolrooms.

The crowding issue has become a focal point of discussion in many of the local school board races in a 13-district region that experienced an 88% increase in student population between 1980 and 1990.

That's in contrast to a 16% increase in the Los Angeles Unified School District during the same period, according to the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

"Not only do they need new places for kids to sit, they need to fix what they have--roofs and floors," said Pamela T. Johnson, a planning consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

Elementary, high school and even community college candidates are debating the impact of rapid growth on the quality of education. The student influx has led to larger class sizes and less space for playground and athletic fields.

"It's going to be more of an issue local leaders need to find their way around," said Val N. Jensen, a candidate for the governing board of the Acton-Agua Dulce district.

At Acton School, temporary buildings outnumber the permanent ones three to one.

In the Saugus Union School District, Supt. Joe Fazio says the population of two elementary schools is squeezed into one. Further compounding the problem is that the opening of an elementary school slated for this month has been postponed until spring because a bridge leading to the campus is not complete.

In the Hart Union High School District, Supt. Robert C. Lee predicts that by next year, his school will have reached capacity.

And in the Santa Clarita Community College District, incumbent Bruce Fortine says the district is turning students away.

"I am not opposed to growth," said Keith Pritsker, a candidate in the Newhall school district. "But there has to be adequate infrastructure to support it."

Some candidates vying for school board seats say school trustees must show greater fiscal restraint to save money for new campuses. Others mention redistricting to alleviate the crush by shifting students to other schools.

In a pinch, some suggest a greater effort should be launched to seek funding from private industry. Some even dare suggest the floating of new school bond measures.

"I don't know if crisis is the right word," said Kari Robertson-Fortson, a candidate for the school district governing board in Palmdale. "But we definitely have to make some decisions."

But as school officials look for solutions, the weight of the growing problem falls squarely on administrators such as Gonder. She has portable buildings all over campus, cutting down on playground space. She's even had temporary buildings erected in the parking lot.

"When you get a school too large, [children] lose their sense as individuals," Gonder said.

And as another lunch shift filed past her, giving up a few shy waves, she confided that she worries about the kids.

"They know we see them as individuals . . . that they're not just part of a crowd," she said "But it's a challenge to do that well"

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