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Key School Officials No-Show at Pesticide Forum


OXNARD — More than 100 people who attended a forum Monday night heard statistics and anecdotes suggesting that schools should not be built near pesticide-laden farmland.

But the education officials who decide where schools are built were not present.

A lone Ventura Unified School District trustee and the superintendent of Ocean View Elementary School District represented their districts.

Noticeably absent from the panel of school officials and health experts was Oxnard School District Supt. Richard Duarte.

Duarte had been invited to the forum at the Oxnard Radisson by a coalition of environmental groups, but he told them recently he would not attend. He could not be reached for comment on his decision.

Duarte's absence, and the lack of other school officials at the forum, disappointed some audience members and the event's organizers.

"Their constituent base, some of it, was here, and they're responsible to them. Why aren't they out here at least listening to the questions of the community?" asked forum organizer Lolita Echeverria, of the Environmental Defense Center.

Bob Dalto, risk manager for the Ventura Unified School District, said he could understand why some school officials failed to attend.

"Not knowing the agenda does make it a little bit uncomfortable," he said.

The evening's organizers said they wanted to present the health risks of pesticides and encourage local school districts to pursue alternative school designs away from farmland and the chemicals associated with it.

"Our intentions are to educate and to inform the public in general and begin a public dialogue about this issue. It's an ongoing concern seeing that there isn't a lot of space available," Echeverria said.

Several Ventura County school districts have looked to agricultural property for new schools because it is relatively inexpensive and can easily accommodate large campuses.

Duarte's Oxnard School District, for one, has proposed building its new Juan Soria School on 14 acres of strawberry fields. Opponents worry that students will be exposed in particular to methyl bromide, a highly toxic fumigant used on strawberries.

Greg Helms, community affairs director for the Environmental Defense Center, said the center realizes California's and Ventura County's need for more schools, but that county school districts are using "cookie-cutter" approaches to school construction by building sprawling single-story campuses. Instead, he suggested they look to "cool things" being done by other districts in the state.

One of the panelists, a facilities manager in the Bakersfield School District, offered one alternative to building on farmland: Bakersfield constructed a multilevel elementary school in a downtown area.

Invitations to Monday's meeting were sent to most west county school districts, Echeverria said. In particular, organizers invited Ocean View, Ventura Unified, Oxnard's elementary and high school districts and the Rio school district. Students in those districts attend schools in areas especially prone to pesticide exposure.

Echeverria pointed to the presence of two of the evening's speakers--Ventura County Supt. of Schools Charles Weis and Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail--as signs that the forum was not a ploy to put school officials on the defensive.

"If [Weis] thought they were being set up, I don't think he would participate," Echeverria said. "I don't think Earl McPhail would be there if we were setting anyone up."

McPhail, who opposes the construction of schools on farmland, has been criticized by environmental groups for not enforcing pesticide regulations.

He encouraged concerned residents and parents to pressure school trustees "not to allow schools to be even thought of in those" farming areas.

Weis told the audience that Ventura County will need at least 30 new schools to meet expected demand, which will require from eight to 40 acres per campus. Not having farmland as an option will mean higher construction costs and fewer available locations within cities, he added.

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