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Orange County

2 Irvine Schools Face Budget Ax

Education: Parents express dismay as the board grapples with projected shortfalls.

November 29, 2001|TINA BORGATTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Irvine school officials outlined a bleak financial situation Tuesday night that could result in the closure of two schools, including one of the county's top-ranked campuses.

Teacher layoffs also might be necessary, district officials said, if the cuts in schools funding proposed by Gov. Gray Davis are carried out.

Although school districts across Orange County say they will be forced to make drastic cutbacks under Davis' scenario, few have been specific about where the cuts will land and none are looking at closing campuses.

"The pressure is on," said Mike Fine, assistant superintendent for business services in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. "We're all feeling the pinch, big time. . . . This is just the first wave. There'll be many more. That's what's scary."

As of yet, Newport-Mesa has not made any cuts. But nearby Saddleback Unified slashed $2.2 million from its budget this month and officials plan to cut another $2 million to $3 million in December. Already, some custodians have been laid off, and music and sports may be cut back.

"It's not a pretty picture," said Bill Manahan, assistant superintendent.

In Irvine, hundreds of parents from Los Naranjos Elementary and Alderwood Basics Plus Elementary packed district headquarters during Tuesday's school board meeting to protest proposals for closing the schools. Such drastic measures, they said, would destroy the tenets upon which the model of master-planned communities was built. Many parents said they moved to Irvine because of its reputation for outstanding educational programs and neighborhood schools.

"Tonight, the sky is falling in Irvine," said Chris Kay, a Los Naranjos parent.

"It doesn't make sense to dismantle a school that . . . is one of the top three schools in the county," said Alderwood parent Maria Falcone. "What will you say? 'We had a school that was one of the top three schools in the county, which we closed because of budget cuts'?"

Steven S. Choi called the proposed closures "a sad chapter for Irvine history."

"Irvine is well known for being a neighborhood school district," Choi said. "By closing any school, we are bringing an end to that tradition. . . . We are shifting our philosophy."

The district is anticipating a $2.2-million deficit next year due to higher insurance costs and expected cuts in state funding and other revenue. Closing both schools, which have relatively small enrollments, would save the district about $800,000 in staffing and operating costs.

But, parents say, Alderwood and Los Naranjos are gems in the district, and closing them would be a mistake.

Alderwood opened in 1980 as an alternative to the district's other schools, focusing on teacher-directed instruction and parent involvement.

Parent involvement is also a key element at Los Naranjos, named a California Distinguished School in 1997. Parents even have a say in curriculum design.

District officials initially eyed only Los Naranjos for closure because its 500-student enrollment is expected to drop by half next year when a new campus in the Oak Creek development opens. But parents, many upset their children would have to cross busy streets or take a bus to get to another school, persuaded district officials to consider other options.

Tuesday, district staff outlined 11 options, ranging from delaying Oak Creek's opening for a year while continuing to run Los Naranjos to closing Alderwood Basics and sending its elementary school students, who come from all over the district, back to their neighborhood campuses.

One option calls for closing both schools, moving the Alderwood Basics program to Oak Creek and sending the Los Naranjos students to nearby campuses such as El Camino Real and Deerfield--actions that would result in the highest savings for the district.

Other options include eliminating class-size reduction in kindergarten through third grade and cutting back art, music and student counseling programs.

"You have heard our desperate situation," Supt. Patricia Clark White told the board. "It's a situation that has been evolving over the last few years. We went twice to the public asking for a parcel tax increase, and twice we were unable to accomplish that."

Since those ballot measures failed--the first in the fall 1999 election, the second in spring 2000--the district has increased class sizes in grades four through 12, which saved the district $2 million. But its financial problems continued to mount with the decline of the state's economy and dwindling contributions to the Irvine Public Schools Foundation, said Dean Waldfogel, the district's deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

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