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The Numbers Crunch : Declining Enrollment Forces District to Consider Closing Some Schools

February 07, 1996|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Come the first day of class in the fall of 1997, some schoolchildren in the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District may have to go a little farther to get to their nearest school.

Looking for savings that could be used to improve learning conditions throughout the school district, the Board of Education has launched a two-year consolidation study that could end up in school closures.

District Supt. John Kramar said a 13,000-student decrease in enrollment over the last 20 years has left some of the 36 schools underused and too costly to operate.

"You got to look at closing some schools," he said.

However, the mere thought of consolidations has some parents upset. They are still bitter about the closing of four schools in the mid-1980s to save costs. Last year, when the board hinted at new consolidations, some parents protested and plans were halted.

Jose De Paz, a father with three children in different schools, said he has talked to about 100 parents who are worried that consolidations would result in overcrowding.

"I will not accept closure of schools in our community," De Paz recently told a committee assembled by the school board to test public opinion.

Hacienda La Puente district officials say that if a decision is made to close some schools, they would aim at leaving class size at about the same level while finding savings that can be used to hire more teachers, buy science equipment and other technology, install air-conditioning systems and repair the aging buildings.

They say the savings would come from cuts in overhead and operational costs at underused schools, among them, the district's four high schools, which have a capacity of 3,000 students but an average enrollment of only 1,500, and 10 kindergarten through eighth-grade schools, some with enrollments as low 350 but which could easily handle 700.

Officials say the evacuated sites could be converted into magnet schools or child-care centers. They could also be leased out or sold to raise revenue.

School boards throughout California have used consolidation as a technique to tackle budget crises and declining enrollment, said Marc Forge of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

"It's a very emotional issue in those communities," he said. "But you can't operate a facility that is being half utilized."

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In the Hacienda La Puente district, where class sizes average 29 to 31 students, parents say school closures would, in De Paz's words, make "education worse, not better."

He said the state mandate of no more than 32 students per class, the measuring stick he believes administrators are using, should be a worse-case scenario, not the standard, and that the board should strive toward reducing present class sizes.

"Twenty would be an an acceptable number," he said. This is why, he said, the board should instead explore opening the four schools shut down in the 1980s.

Parents' other worries include school convenience.

"I like things as they are," said Sandy Gomez, who walks her two elementary school children two blocks to school. "If they close our school, how far are they going to go?"

John Chavez, father of a fifth-grader, said, "Things are pretty bad already. We just shouldn't have less teachers."

De Paz said in exploring cutting costs, the board should consider other options, such as curbing administrators' salaries or even more drastic measures.

"Maybe they need to talk about a special tax," he said.

Kramar said concrete decisions will not be made until next fall.

Along with requesting public opinion through hearings and a survey, the board will study how consolidation would affect classroom and school sizes, busing, or if it would clash with any state regulations.

He said parents' views will be weighed heavily to determine if any of the schools will be closed.

"It's not just a matter of numbers," Kramar said. "We want to hear what the parents say."

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