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School Split Takes a Big Step

Backers in Camarillo who want to break away from the Oxnard Unified district gather 9,590 signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

August 15, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

Proponents of a decade-long effort in Camarillo to secede from the Oxnard Union High School District cleared a major hurdle Thursday, as community members presented county school officials with a 9,590-signature petition to place the issue on a local ballot.

"Today is kind of like taking your final exam at the university level," said Ron Speakman, president of the Pleasant Valley Elementary school board, which is pushing to include secondary schools in a unified Camarillo district. "It's a huge sigh of relief that we are where we are."

After the signatures are verified by the county clerk's office, the Ventura County superintendent of schools and the county Board of Education will have 120 days to review the petition before making a recommendation to state education officials.

The state education department will evaluate factors such as district size and financial effect before it makes a decision on whether to go forward. The county can then call an election.

The process can take as long as three years, county Supt. Charles Weis told the small group of volunteers who had gathered to present the educator with four cardboard boxes full of signatures.

If successful, the community group will create a new unified school district that would merge Adolfo Camarillo High School with the 14 elementary and middle schools in Camarillo's Pleasant Valley School District. If that happens, about 700 Camarillo teenagers currently at Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard would be relocated.

While efforts to secede from the Oxnard district began as early as 1992, they found new momentum in the spring of 2002, when community leaders in Camarillo began gathering signatures. They needed signatures from 25% of the registered voters in the Pleasant Valley district -- or about 9,400 people -- to qualify for state review.

Moorpark was the last city to create its own unified school district in 1981, Weis said.

"I think we are at a point in our development as a city, with more than 60,000 people, that we should proceed to see if people want to have their own high school and their own unified school district," said Bill Little, former Camarillo city manager and an organizer of the petition drive. "Thousand Oaks did it ... Moorpark did it ... and it's time for us to do the same thing."

But many questions remain, including where those 700 Rio Mesa students would go, since Camarillo High is already cramped for space. A study commissioned by the Pleasant Valley district and released in February says the new district would have to either build a new high school or possibly go to a year-round schedule to accommodate them.

The report also says the split would shift the ethnic balance of students in the Oxnard high school district, causing the white student population to drop from 25% to 13% and the proportion of Latino students to rise from 61% to 72%.

District size and whether the reorganization will promote racial or ethnic discrimination or segregation are both factors the state will also take into consideration before deciding on the unification effort.

Sandy Rao, a Camarillo parent with two children at Rio Mesa and one in the Pleasant Valley District, said those issues have always bothered her, which is why she continues to oppose the effort.

"The reality will be that my children will no longer be able to go to a diverse school that has people from all ends of the spectrum, and in my mind that's a really big loss," she said. "I believe Rio Mesa has been a really interesting melting pot. It's working just fine ... let's not throw that away."

But proponents say that race is a nonissue. "You can debate the racial dynamics of this forever," said Speakman, whose children attend Rio Mesa. "It's not what this is about."

Rao also questioned the financial implications of the move, which she called "not unification, but divorce."

She pointed to a number of unknown costs that would have to be worked out by arbitrators or in court, including dividing up assets and dealing with employees. "For me, it has looked from the beginning like something that could be a lawyer's dream and a children's nightmare," Rao said. "Once you start sending things to arbitration, the cash register will start going, and everybody will have to pay for that."

Proponents argue that they will be better off financially with their own district. Not only would the new district get $6 million from the state as a unification bonus, Little said, the move would give local residents more control over how their tax and bond dollars are spent.

Right now, despite the fact that about 40% of the district's property tax revenue comes from Camarillo residents, only one of five school board members is from that city.

Little also said he didn't have much faith in Oxnard school district officials' claims that they were on track to build a new high school in Camarillo.

"They've been promising that for the last 15 to 20 years, and the fact that they're promising it now doesn't impress me very much," Little said. "They trot it out every time something like this goes on."

Oxnard Union High School District trustees have taken a neutral position, leaving it up to Camarillo residents to decide, said Supt. Gary Davis.

However, board members will meet next week with their attorney to ensure the district's interests are protected as the effort moves forward, he said.

Times staff writer Sandra Murillo contributed to this report.

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