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School Board Race Focuses on 6th-Graders


THOUSAND OAKS — It's understandable if voters are more than a little confused by the debate over the biggest issue in the race for two seats on the Conejo Valley school board: the nearly tapped-out capacity for sixth-graders at the middle schools.

On one side are the challengers--Laura Lee Custodio, Mildred Lynch, Glenn Grago, Thomas Larson and Ralph Starita--most of whom contend that the phasing out of sixth-grade at the elementary schools has left the district's four middle schools bursting at their seams and the community in desperate need of a fifth.

On the other side are the incumbents, Dorothy Beaubien and Dolores Didio, who say the schools are not overcrowded and that there is room for any sixth-grader who wants to move on to middle school.

But with children still on the waiting list in the seventh week of the school year and some parents--anxious that their children will not win a spot in coming years--vowing to oust Beaubien and Didio, the issue could skew this election.

"The board needs a fresh face . . . and I'm going to do everything to make sure there are two new members on the board next year," said Robin Hagey, the mother of a fifth-grader at Park Oaks School and leader of a grass-roots effort to unseat the incumbents.

For years, Conejo children spent their sixth-grade year at elementary school, but in 1994 the board allowed parents to choose between elementary and middle schools. The change reflects a growing national trend to place the budding adolescents in a more rigorous environment.

But Custodio, 48, a teacher and attorney who has made the creation of a fifth middle school the centerpiece of her bid to win a seat on the board, said the district erred by not planning to build more middle school space when it determined that sixth-graders would be better off there.

"They dropped the ball in terms of planning. Otherwise, they wouldn't be having the problems they are," she said.

Custodio, who teaches music and English at a Granada Hills middle school, has been endorsed by the teachers union, Thousand Oaks Councilwoman Linda Parks and council candidate Ed Masry, as well as Hagey's group, which has flooded the board with hundreds of postcards demanding a fifth middle school.

The group would like University Elementary School to be converted to a middle school, a recommendation made last year by a district task force on the crowding issue. University's enrollment has fallen, and continued declines are projected for the next few years.

Didio, a former Los Angeles Unified School District business teacher, doesn't think Conejo needs a fifth middle school. If it did, she said, University wouldn't work, because it's not close to expected future housing developments.

"And it would still cost $6.5 million to convert it," Didio said.

Both she and Beaubien have been endorsed by state Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), Ventura County Supervisor Frank Schillo and county Supt. of Schools Chuck Weis.

They have also been endorsed by the teachers union, the leadership of which is seeking at least a 10% pay increase in current contract negotiations.

Didio, a 17-year incumbent, said the phasing out of sixth-grade classes at the elementary school level is among the accomplishments she is most proud of--alongside the construction of theaters at Newbury Park and Thousand Oaks high schools and the establishment of a school-to-career program.

Eight schools are limited to kindergarten through fifth-grade instruction, and the 11 remaining elementary schools in the district offer sixth grade.

"The age level of the sixth-graders is more compatible with seventh- and eighth-graders," said Didio, a 37-year Thousand Oaks resident and the mother of four. "They belong together."

Indeed, the desire of parents to send their sixth-graders to middle school underlies the tight space problems. This year, two-thirds of the district's students in that grade level sought to enroll in middle school. The district has found space for 59%.

District officials said there are eight open sixth-grade spaces at the four middle schools. About 60 students are looking to be placed.

Lynch said she thinks sixth-graders should have remained on elementary school campuses but separated from the other grades, where they can prepare for middle school more gradually. In their own area, they could have lockers and classes with different teachers, she said.

Lynch, a 26-year veteran of teaching in both private and public schools and a 13-year board member, lost her reelection bid in 1998.

The 24-year resident of Thousand Oaks said she is running again because she believes the current board doesn't put enough emphasis on academics, leaving students under-prepared for the rigors of college.

"I'd like to see the curriculum strengthened," said Lynch, who is a great-grandmother.

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