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Santa Ana's Schoolyard Brawl

Education: Class, racial overtones tinge conflict over planned campus. And the district has yet to obtain the property.

January 23, 2002|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Plans to build a state-of-the-art elementary school in Santa Ana have a group of residents from some of the city's most exclusive and historic neighborhoods vowing to stop what they see as an encroachment on their way of life.

"It will destroy the ambience of the neighborhood," said Bill Eldridge, 57, a resident of Fisher Park, just south of the planned Lorin Griset Elementary School. "This is the best and one of the few remaining good neighborhoods in the city."

The district says its planned $12-million campus would accommodate at least 850 students and ease overcrowding at nearby Santiago Elementary School. Santiago has 1,100 students, about 500 more than its capacity. Those students are now being taught in 23 portable classrooms.

The site, a vacant 9-acre lot between the Santa Ana Freeway and Flower Street, is surrounded by such upscale neighborhoods as Morrison Park, Floral Park, Riverview and Fisher Park. Yet the Santa Ana Unified School District serves some of the neediest students in the state. Two-thirds of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Complicating the issue is a City Council-approved plan to build 36 luxury homes on the site. District officials said they are trying to negotiate to buy the land from the developer. If that fails, they said, they could stop the housing development through eminent domain.

The conflict has been tinged with class and racial overtones and accusations that opponents of the school don't want poor Latino students in their neighborhoods.

"I think some of the questions raised and comments made had racial implications and it saddens me," said Kim Gerda, 44, a Floral Park resident who has two children in the district and supports building the school. "But there are also kind and tolerant people in this neighborhood."

More than 90% of the district's students are Latino.

The Santa Ana Unified School District has an unusual problem: $330 million for new schools but few places to spend the money.

Two years ago, the district passed a construction bond measure to build 11 elementary schools and two high schools. So far, officials have located sites for both high schools but only four elementary schools.

One of those sites is the proposed location for Lorin Griset elementary, named after a former Santa Ana mayor. The lot, at 2800 Farmers Drive, once belonged to Farmers Insurance, which had offices there.

The company sold the land last year to developer Brehm Companies and the San Diego-based firm received City Council approval to build homes.

School officials say they have had their sights on the land for years, but lost out in the bidding to Brehm because school districts must perform state-mandated environmental tests on the land before even making an offer. Brehm officials could not be reached for comment.

Strict environmental guidelines for school sites and the increasing scarcity of undeveloped land make it extremely difficult for the school district to find suitable land, Supt. Al Mijares said.

"We have scoured the district," Mijares told a group of residents during a town hall meeting last week. The location is ideal for a new school, he said, and "we can build almost immediately."

The raucous meeting was organized by residents opposed to the school. They wanted to pose questions to district officials, including board members John Palacio and Nativo L. Lopez. The group, Santa Ana Residents for Responsible and Excellent Public Education, has threatened to sue.

Some of their questions: Why can't the district condemn blighted apartment buildings and build schools there? How will the district control traffic? Will the campus be locked after classes so it won't attract crime? Who will use the school after hours? Will students be bused from other areas?

Lopez said that building on the site of an apartment would mean knocking down someone's home, and the district would not do that. Some in the crowd booed.

Traffic will be less than when Farmers Insurance occupied the lot, district officials said. More boos. The district must make the facilities available for public use after hours by law. Murmurs filled the room.

Few students if any would be bused to the school, district officials said, because 2,300 elementary pupils in the district live within a 1 1/4-mile radius of the site.

Oscar Garza, 40, a member of the residents group who lives in Washington Square, accused the district of forcing campuses on neighborhoods. "We are not opposed to the school. We are opposed to them coming into our neighborhood to drop off their kids. We want to enjoy our lives."

Garza and others deny that their opposition is based on socioeconomics or ethnicity.

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