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L.A. Unified schools won't lack for space

The district's building boom is a bust for taxpayers, critics say.

June 23, 2008|Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writer

San Fernando Middle School is expecting 1,600 students this fall, but officials estimate that the north Valley campus could handle 2,300. Lake Primary Center in Echo Park is expecting 160 but has room for 260. And Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights is anticipating about 2,700 students; it has space for about 3,000.

What do Los Angeles Unified School District officials plan to do with the empty space? Add to it.

The district plans to build campuses that will take hundreds of students from those schools, further reducing their enrollment. By the time the building program is completed in 2012, there will be tens of thousands of empty seats at dozens of once-crowded schools, a Times analysis shows.

The district will use boundary changes, smaller class sizes and other methods to even out enrollment and reduce the surplus. A decade ago, the nation's second-largest school system was bursting at the seams, with campuses so crowded that students sometimes had no desks. And the number of students was predicted to keep growing. The dire situation persuaded local voters to approve four bonds, which launched a $20-billion building and modernization program.

But now, with 180 new schools and additions completed and 79 more on the drawing board, things have changed dramatically.

Economic and demographic changes have resolved some of the space crunch that the construction program was created to fix.

Over the last decade, fewer people moved to Southern California, large numbers of school-aged children grew up, and the birth rate among Latinos declined. Some students left traditional public schools to enroll in publicly financed charters, experts and officials said. Rising housing prices changed the face of some neighborhoods in the urban core, bringing singles and childless couples into what were once communities of large, poor immigrant families.

As a result, L.A. Unified has lost 57,000 students, nearly 8% of its total enrollment.

"When we wrote the ballot arguments against the last bond, we said they should wait. There were still billions of dollars in the pipeline, and their own figures showed declining enrollment," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. "We were speculating that these schools were eventually going to be housing the homeless because we're running out of students."

With the district paying $600 a square foot for construction costs, the extra schools add up to real money.

Facing a budget shortfall, the school board last year scrapped 19 projects and reduced the size of others, citing demographic changes, but officials said every remaining school is necessary.

L.A. Unified plans to add space for roughly 70,000 students at currently mandated class sizes by 2012. But its own projections show that would produce space for 25,000 more students than needed to take schools off year-round schedules and eliminate forced busing, the goals of the school building program.

The district is continuing with plans to build some schools in areas of dwindling population and others that are too large, in some cases because the projects are too far along. Also, the district, running up against state deadlines for matching funds, is primed to avoid delays.

"If we're locked and loaded, let's go," said Edwin Van Ginkel, a high-ranking consultant for the district's building program. "You don't save a whole lot of money in redesign. You're just taking a few classrooms out."

In addition, officials said, the extra space will allow the district to stop crowding playgrounds with portable classroom trailers, leave a large majority of classrooms empty for one period to allow teachers to plan there and, potentially, shrink class sizes at all schools. The extra space will also allow the district to take advantage of a seven-year state grant to make classes at select campuses smaller still. These measures were not envisioned when voters were asked to approve the bonds.

Rena Perez, the district's head demographer, said an increase in births in the region is expected to cause enrollment to begin rising in six years.

"If we build to our absolute need, then we wouldn't have any margin if and when our enrollment starts to grow again," she said.

No one wants to repeat history.

In the late 1990s, L.A. schools were so cramped that more than 14,000 students were bused from their neighborhoods to less-crowded schools, some traveling for an hour or more.

Tens of thousands of students rotated in and out of campuses on year-round calendars that were once hailed as an efficient use of buildings but have since come under scrutiny as a stumbling block to education.

Schools were in disrepair and polls showed education was on voters' minds. Officials thought the time was right to ask for improvements and a small amount of construction. The first ballot measure failed by a slim margin, but a second one months later passed with 71% of the vote.

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