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Ventura County

Build Schools Within Cities, Plan Urges

Development: Backers say proposed guidelines are needed to keep bulldozers out of prime farmland and for county to retain semirural feel.

September 04, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Educators must erect more two-story schools, rehab existing buildings and build campuses within city boundaries if Ventura County is to retain its semirural feel, say advocates of proposed new guidelines for school construction.

Following these guidelines will help keep bulldozers out of prime farmland and avoid political fights that can cause expensive building delays for school districts, proponents say.

The most recent example was a battle to defeat a new elementary school planned for 14 acres of farmland at the edge of the fertile Oxnard Plain.

After three years, Oxnard Elementary School District officials shelved the plans amid opposition from environmental and community groups, while also losing millions of dollars in state funding.

No one wants to see that happen again, said Supervisor Steve Bennett, a leader in the county's slow-growth movement.

"We are trying to balance our desire to protect greenbelts from development and to get schools built," said Bennett, who helped draft the guidelines. "Rather than reacting every time a crisis comes up, it's better to encourage as much advance planning as possible."

Bennett will present the guidelines later this month to the Local Agency Formation Commission, a planning agency that reviews development outside city boundaries.

County voters in recent years have enacted laws that restrict development on farmland and open space. Although schools are exempt, construction on agricultural property is still fraught with legal and political challenges.

The guidelines, developed after two workshops involving school officials, farmers, environmentalists and planners, outline "a new playing field" for school districts, builders and cities, Bennett said.

Generally, the guidelines would require cities and school districts to work together to plan schools when new subdivisions are going through the approval process. School administrators also would be required to exhaust all other options before seeking approval to build on prime farmland, Bennett said.

School districts would have to adhere to the guidelines before they could get a project approved by the Local Agency Formation Commission, he said.

"You want to say to LAFCO that all reasonable efforts have been made to avoid building on farmland," said Bennett, who is also chairman of the LAFCO board.

School officials say they are already working closely with cities and developers. The Oxnard school district, for instance, is planning to convert one-story buildings at seven elementary schools into two-story facilities, said Sandra Rosales, assistant superintendent of business.

The extra space will add so many classrooms that it will be like opening two new schools, Rosales said. The district is already on a year-round, multi-track calendar to increase capacity at existing schools, she said.

"Oxnard's been doing its part," she said. "But it takes everyone working together to try to work through this."

Battles often emerge when cities approve developments that produce school-age children but not the classrooms in which to educate them, said George Shaw, a planner with the state Department of Education's facilities division.

"School districts have to do what they are mandated to do--provide an education for children in their area," Shaw said. "It is laudable to try to head off problems before they erupt. Certainly school districts would prefer the benefit of good planning and not be the scapegoats for bad planning."

The pressure to build schools in growth-restricted areas comes from population growth.

Enrollment in Ventura County schools grew from 112,000 a decade ago to around 133,000 last year. Estimates of future growth differ, but experts preparing from the "baby boom echo" anticipate at least 1% a year in new enrollment to accommodate the children of baby boomers.

That growth rate is equivalent to two elementary schools annually for the next decade.

This trend plays out most clearly in Oxnard, the county's largest city with 177,000 residents. The Oxnard district would need to build a new elementary school every year for the next five years to keep up with demand, said Charles Weis, the county's superintendent of schools.

One goal is to move toward schools that can hold more students, without compromising safety concerns, Weis said. The optimal number of students for elementary schools is 500. For high schools, it is 1,000.

"We can't just say there will be no more schools," Weis said. "So we have to try to come up with compromises."

Home builders also need to be more involved, both in locating property and building schools, officials said. Districts currently have a legal right to demand only part of a school's construction cost from developers.

But with the increasing difficulty of getting subdivisions approved, developers are more receptive to taking on new costs. That is what happened in the Rio Elementary School District last year.

When a 2,800-home project was proposed, Supt. Yolanda Benitez got the developer to agree to build three campuses right away, with no guarantee of repayment. If the RiverPark development is approved by the Oxnard City Council, the schools will be among the first buildings to go up.

That can be a win-win situation, Shaw said. Home buyers want to know what school their children will attend and are happy if it's the new one down the block, he said.

"Getting developers to work with school districts is a kind of hit-or-miss prospect," he said. "But if they are wise, they can advertise that there is going to be a new elementary school in that development."

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