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LAUSD claims reopening schools is too costly


first_imgLos Angeles Unified has five shuttered campuses — four of them in the San Fernando Valley — but says it would cost too much to reopen the schools despite the pleas for classroom space from the booming charter movement. And charter operators also say they can’t afford — and shouldn’t have to pay — the multimillion-dollar cost of renovating the decrepit campuses and preparing them for students. Still, with state money available for charter development and charters a key issue in the upcoming school board race, officials on both sides now say there may be a way to work together to help the independent campuses evolve. “These seats cost money,” said Greg McNair, the district’s chief administrator for charter schools. “If they want to partner with us in identifying the cost there in order to make an intelligent decision about whether they want to pay the cost, I’d be happy to do that, but that just hasn’t happened yet. “I think this should be a joint venture between the district and charter schools, not just this constant complaining and haranguing about nothing’s happening,” he said. Caprice Young, who heads the California Charter Schools Association, said she’s prepared to discuss reopening the schools as charters, but was skeptical of the district’s commitment. “What our experience has been is we have meetings and meetings and meetings in rooms full of 30 district staff, none of whom have the power to make a decision,” Young said. “We’re ready to meet on it and we’d like to get schools in those campuses, but so far that hasn’t been our experience. “They’re all talk and no action, but we’re ready to get it done.” The dilemma is exemplified by Highlander Road Elementary in West Hills, which was closed 18 years ago because of declining enrollment in the area. Currently used for storage, the campus was offered by Los Angeles Unified to a charter, but operators refused because of the $11 million cost to get it ready for students. Charter officials note that voter-approved Proposition 39 makes the district responsible for providing them with classroom space and say LAUSD should foot the bill. District officials say that money — about $85 million remains — is earmarked to relieve classroom overcrowding and cannot be used to build outdated buildings up to code. Still, Tamar Galatzan, who is challenging school board member Jon Lauritzen in the May 15 runoff, said she would make it a priority to get the shuttered campuses reopened if she’s elected on May 15. “One of the first issues I intend to pursue is how to turn Highlander Road and other closed school sites into thriving schools once again,” she said during a news conference last Thursday in front of the campus. “We cannot continue to deprive the West Valley and any other neighborhoods in the district of quality schools.” Lauritzen noted that the school board is spending $12 million to reopen Enadia Way Elementary in Canoga Park, and that it may be time to take other campuses out of mothballs, as well. “We have taken on that bureaucracy when we fought to have one of those schools reopen,” Ed Burke, Lauritzen’s chief of staff, said of the Enadia Way project. “And now we will fight to open others as we create the need.” The creation of charter schools is an issue that has sharply divided Lauritzen and Galatzan in their high-profile race to represent the West San Fernando Valley on the LAUSD board. Like the teachers’ union that supports him, Lauritzen is a critic of charters, maintaining that students can best be served by working through the district. Galatzan, who is backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his education-reform movement, maintains that the independent schools offer alternatives that help spur student achievement. The fact that there are five shuttered campuses in LA — Highlander, Collins Street, Oso Avenue and Platt Ranch in the Valley and 98th Street in South LA — while scores of charters are clamoring for space demonstrates the need for new leadership on the school board, Galatzan said. “The condition of Highlander School — weeds growing out of the pavement, boarded-up classrooms — is symbolic of the LAUSD’s failure to serve the parents, teachers and students of our community,” she said. But LAUSD officials said just a handful of charters have expressed interest in the shuttered schools. Most of the 103 charters are located over the hill, so the Valley campuses don’t meet their needs. Still, the facility shortage has surfaced as the No. 1 impediment to the growth of the charter movement, with many operating out of churches and warehouses with concrete parking lots serving as the playground. The district is using the empty campuses for adult education, professional development centers, staff offices, and in some cases leasing them out. Highlander was leased for years to a private school until 2004 and is now being used for storage. LAUSD officials maintain they don’t have enough surplus classroom space in their 850 schools to meet the demand voiced by charters. The district is in the midst of a $19 billion construction program, but only after years of not building schools. “The reality is that the district has what it has and offered what it has to the charter schools under Prop. 39,” McNair said. “The district doesn’t want to hold anything back. We’ve been busing students for over a decade to spaces in the Valley and the Westside because we didn’t have space for kids in their neighborhoods.” Two dozen Valley schools were closed between 1970 and 1987, and all but five have since reopened, most for instructional uses, said Guy Mehula, LAUSD’s chief facilities executive. The Enadia Way project will bring that number down to four. “The reason they’re not being used as a school right now is they don’t have the enrollment in that area to substantiate opening them as a school,” Mehula said. McNair said he’s open to conversations with charter operators about reopening shuttered campuses, but noted there’s just $85 million to be shared among more than 100 charter schools. “We should go jointly and make a reasonable evaluation of cost and reasonable decisions on how much we each want to contribute in terms of resources,” McNair said. “Saying to one school we’ll spend $10 million of the charter bond money to give 300 seats is probably going to make a whole bunch of people upset. “Charter bond money could be utilized in better ways.” — Naush Boghossian, (818) 713-3722 naush.boghossian@dailynews.comlast_img read more