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Monday, September 26, 2005 | Few school board decisions are as basic as building a school. For decades, as student populations increased in the inner city, San Diego, like other California cities, failed to build sufficient schools to house children of color from working-class families. This did not happen in middle-class suburbs where enough schools were built. Today, many of these north of I-8 schools are under-populated and depend upon the busing of south of I-8 children to stay open.

South of I-8 children can spend hours each day on buses that take them to and from school. In one Southeast community, surrounding Shelltown, 3,000 middle school students live but local schools have only 1,600 seats. Consequently, 1,400 students must be bused to school somewhere else.

This is one part of the legacy of educational inequity, which also includes allowing beginning teachers to gain experience in a south school before transferring to a north school to finish their career. The teacher experience disparity from south to north is enormous.

Last April, after more than a year of study, the district administration proposed building a new middle school in Shelltown. The proposed school would serve the 1,400 students bused outside the community. Southeast San Diego has the densest population of middle school students in the city and elementary enrollment and birth rates indicate a permanent need for the school.

Actually, it would have been more appropriate for the district to build two 700 student middle schools. The value of smaller, more personalized schools is well recognized as is the need, during pre-adolescent years, to make schooling a team-based, special learning experience. Unfortunately, this was not proposed, but, in the least, the district was preparing to build a desperately needed school.

Building a new school in an older, established community is one of the most agonizing decisions a school board is called upon to make. It often requires buying many houses in order to create a tract large enough to accommodate the school. People are displaced. Too frequently they include: seniors who have lived in their homes for years; young working-class families just starting out; and lower-income folks with limited options for finding adequate replacement housing. The upheaval is heartbreaking.

Nevertheless, the school board is charged with assuring that children in San Diego have neighborhood schools to attend. The children of Shelltown, and other Southeast neighborhoods, have just as much right to attend a local school as do the children of Scripps Ranch. Making this right a reality is a fundamental responsibility of the Board of Education.

Prior to placing the building of the proposed Shelltown middle school on the school board agenda, the new school board had not faced the need to acquire residences in order to build a school.

A hundred people came to the board meeting to plead and demand that the board not take their homes. While seeking to save their homes, they recognized the need for the school and, consequently, the inevitable loss of homes. With great empathy, they hoped it would be someone else’s home.

The district has the power to condemn property, pay fair market price for it, and use it to build a school. In Shelltown, fair market value probably does not equal the cost of buying a comparable home elsewhere. This increased the discomfort felt by new board members Shelia Jackson and Luis Acle.

Impacted residents called them, as their local school district representatives. These members faced a burdensome decision. The choice was basic: take neighborhood homes and build the school or not build the school and continue to require children to get up extra early for a long bus ride north.

They opposed the new school. In doing this, they failed to meet their responsibility to neighborhood children, their parents and the community.

In deference to Jackson and Acle, other board members withheld approval. Only Katherine Nakamura, from Northeast San Diego, addressed the pressing need for the school and the inherent inequity in not providing it. Standing alone she declared, “You ought to be demanding another school.”

Facing affected residents, Jackson and Acle stuck their heads into the sand and defied reality. They asserted, despite student population data, that there was no need for the school. Declining enrollment North of I-8, they said, alleviated the need to build schools for children who live South of I-8.

Acle advocated building a combined elementary-middle school outside the community at Sherman Elementary School. He also suggested thinking differently about the issue, without explaining what that meant.

What did not exist was leadership.

Eventually, at some future point, a middle school will be built in the Southeast because there is desperate need for it. Homes will be taken. Good people will ache. This pain, now, has been delayed for a year, or more, as the children continue to suffer.

Les Birdsall is an education expert who has been involved in federal, state and local (district and school) improvement initiatives for 40 years. Read his education column every Monday.

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