May 30, 1992 - From the May, 1992 issue

School Board’s Mark Slavkin: An Open Letter to Con Howe

The third in The Planning Report’s “open letters” to new Planning Director Con Howe — a series designed to offer insights into different aspects of planning in Los Angeles — this month offers the views of Mark Slavkin.

Slavkin is a member of the L.A. Unified School District’s Board of Education and serves as Chairman of the Board’s Facilities Committee, which is grappling with how to provide adequate space for the district’s burgeoning student population.  

Dear Con Howe:

You have a unique opportunity to bring a new perspective and a new vision to planning in Los Angeles. As a Member of the Board of Education and Chairman of our Facilities Committee, I hope you will understand the critical need to provide adequate school facilities to accommodate our rapid growth.

The Los Angeles Unified School District serves 650,000 kindergarten through 12th grade students and 200,000 adult students. K-12 enrollment is growing by nearly 15,000 students per year. Each day, 25,000 children must be bused away from overcrowded schools to attend classes in schools with available space. District staff expect all schools to operate on a multi-track, year-round schedule by 1997. Unless the financing and planning of school facilities is significantly changed, the District will literally run out of available classroom space by the end of this decade.

It is critical that the District and the City develop a more collaborative relationship. If the City sees school overcrowding as “not my problem,” we will all suffer. I believe school capacity should be viewed as basic infrastructure for the continued growth of this city.

I would like to suggest a number of strategies we might utilize together to meet the need for new schools:

Mitigating New Development

The City has been approving increased residential density in neighborhoods where the schools are already full. Developers have not been required to mitigate the impact on local schools beyond the payment of the state-imposed “developer fees.” District revenues generated from these fees have dropped to almost $8 million, far less than the cost of constructing a single school.

Current case law allows planning agencies to deny approval of new projects if the developer fails to adequately mitigate the impact on surrounding schools. To date, the City has failed to exercise this authority. In many areas, entire blocks are replaced with high density residential complexes. The City’s approval of these units results in more students enrolling in already over­crowded schools. In the absence of effective mitigation, this means more children must ride the bus to some distant community in search of an empty classroom seat.

Just like other infrastructure needs, such as sewer capacity, parking spaces, or traffic mitigation, school capacity must be given formal status as a mandatory mitigation required of all projects. I am working with Council members and the Mayor to ensure that all new projects are reviewed for their impact on school overcrowding. I would like to see your Department review the school impact for all new projects and withhold your recommendation for approval until the school impact is mitigated.

Community Planning

The LAUSD’s projections on increased student enrollment for each of the fifty high school complexes must be formally integrated into future city planning efforts. As communities come together to help chart their future, projections for new schools must be fully integrated into all plans. By inviting the School District to participate in each community plan update, you can help facilitate this coordination.

In our built-out urban environment, it has become increasingly difficult to identify traditional sites for new schools. Typically the choice is between condemning homes or building on industrial sites with large toxic clean-up costs. For example, the School Board is currently considering the displacement of 250 homeowners and renters in order to construct a new elementary school near Jefferson High School. After four years of study, community pressure continues to stand in the way of a new school. I believe we must take a more creative approach to new school sites.

Schools in the Workplace

Now that on-site child care has begun to take hold with more progressive employers, on-site classrooms can provide an innovative way to reduce overcrowding and promote greater parental involvement. Mayor Bradley has taken the lead in developing an on-site kindergarten adjacent to City Hall. You can help by raising the concept in the context of new large-scale developments.

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Creating Primary Centers

Whenever they are unable to otherwise mitigate the impact on nearby schools, developers should be required to provide on-site primary centers — small schools serving kindergarten through second or third grade.

In addition to their smaller size, primary centers offer many educational advantages. This concept has been championed by Kids First, a coalition of grassroots organizations. Though the District is seeking one-acre sites to develop new primary centers, this idea should also be applied to new large-scale residential developments. Schools could utilize the lower floors or a mixed-use project, as well.

You might also examine applying the mixed-use concept to the reuse of existing large, low-density school sites. Through leases with private developers, some schools might be

rebuilt to provide underground parking, classrooms in the lower floors, and housing in the upper floors. The Caty and School District could cooperate in identifying neighborhoods where these options could be implemented.

Vacant Commercial Space

As the commercial real estate market continues to stagnate, attention has turned to this vacant space as a source of classroom space. The Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now — LEARN — has targeted this idea as a major focus of its Facilities Task Force. This will require changing the rigid state law governing school construction. It will also require a closer partnership with the City in ensuring proper earthquake safety.

Schools in Parks

The District is seeking to build a new elementary school within Lindsay Park in the Jefferson High School complex. Students would attend classes in a multi-story building and use the park as a playground. To date, the City Department of Recreation and Parks has opposed this effort, citing the loss of park space. We must overcome this adversarial posture.

We should not see the needs of children in schools as existing apart from their need for park space. Through your leadership, future parks might be planned with an expectation of joint use rather than as wholly separate amenities for the community.

Working Together

I hope you will endorse these recommendations and provide leadership for their implementation. In spite of the challenges, we can work together to provide exciting and innovative educational opportunities for all the children of the City. The City’s future depends on us.

Mark Slavkin

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