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Oxnard District's Plans for New School Dealt Setback

Education: Agency denies annexation that would have cleared the way for elementary to be built on farmland.


OXNARD — The elementary school district's plans to build a campus on farmland were thwarted Wednesday when a planning agency rejected a proposal to annex the land to the city, leaving school officials scrambling to find an alternative site.

After nearly five hours of testimony from opponents and supporters, the Local Agency Formation Commission voted unanimously against expanding the city's boundaries to include the 14-acre sod field at the city's east end.

The commission followed the recommendation of Executive Officer Everett Millais, who said building a school on agricultural land would set a dangerous precedent. The seven-member commission is charged with reviewing proposed city boundary changes.

During the hearing, Oxnard Elementary School District officials told the commission that the proposed Juan Soria Elementary School would help relieve severe overcrowding in the district.

But LAFCO members said school crowding is not their concern.

"We're not responsible for the number of schools the district has," member John Curtis said. "The city and the school district are obviously not working together to project down the road what the school population is going to be."

Schools Supt. Richard Duarte said LAFCO's decision delays plans for a new school by at least a year, costing the district roughly $500,000 spent on environmental testing and planning.

The Soria site, at the east end of Emerson Avenue and Gershwin Place, had already gained the approval of the school board, City Council and state environmental officials.

"I'm mostly disappointed for the families and the children," Duarte said after the vote Wednesday afternoon. "We're going to go back to the drawing board. We're going to have to build schools."

In fact, the district needs to open three elementary schools and one middle school in the next five years to meet the needs of the growing student population, Duarte said. The average elementary school in the 16,000-student Oxnard district serves 855 students, compared with a countywide average of 450, he added.

During the hearing, more than 40 speakers gave impassioned speeches on the school site. Proponents included district and city officials, as well as several Spanish-speaking parents wearing buttons that stated "Just Say Yes," and carrying signs that proclaimed "Vote Yes For Oxnard Children."

Rosaria Flores said many of the children in her neighborhood have to be bused to other schools, while others walk long distances. "You should live there to see how hard it is," she said. "Please help us to build this school. It's very necessary to us. It is very necessary to our children."

State Department of Education consultant George Shaw told LAFCO members the school district shouldn't be punished for trying to accommodate the city's growing population. He also said farms and schools can coexist, with regular communication. "There is no better use for this 14 acres," Shaw said.

On the other side, environmentalists and farmers argued that building a school on agricultural land would lead to more development and erosion of the greenbelt between Oxnard and Camarillo.

They also expressed concern that students might be exposed to pesticides from nearby strawberry fields. Last week, students at Mound Elementary School in Ventura were kept inside after pesticide fumes drifted onto the campus.

"Accidents do happen," said Lolita Echeverria of the Environmental Defense Center. "Mound is a perfect example of why not to place schools next to ag land."

Echeverria and others cited a list of 29 alternate sites, which a group of parents and community members presented to the school board last week. Most of the sites, however, are situated near railroad tracks, power lines or the airport and would not meet state standards, school officials countered.

Supervisor John K. Flynn said approving the annexation would mean going against the will of the voters, who approved a SOAR initiative two years ago.

And Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, urged LAFCO members to preserve agricultural land. "If not now, when are cities going to be forced to live within their boundaries?"

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