A tiny park just north of John Adams Elementary School

"We've taken too much of a Band-Aid approach"

— School Board member Ron Ottinger doesn't want to be branded the "candidate who allowed them to bulldoze the park." In a dispute with the San Diego Unified School District that culminated in Normal Heights residents threatening his recall, Ottinger has decided to back a community proposal for additional classroom space for John Adams Elementary.

At issue is a tiny park-- six-tenths of an acre on School Street, just north of John Adams Elementary School. The school is located on Madison Avenue between 35th Street and Holly Boulevard. Its L-shaped playground runs north to Adams Avenue along 35th Street and to the School Street park on the Holly Boulevard side. The park was constructed in 1992 through a joint city-school district venture at a cost of $350,000. According to Gary Weber, chair of the Normal Heights Community Planning Committee, "The tiny park was the product of at least ten years of prodding the city over scarcity of parks in Normal Heights. No one," he says, "wants to see the result of that effort disappear."

The Normal Heights community was "built out" in the 1930s and '40s, some 30 years before the city developed park standards. Vacant land is scarce now, well below the 70 acres of park space dictated by today's city standards for the neighborhood. Normal Heights has only six acres of park, a 90 percent shortfall that makes it one of the most park-deficient neighborhoods in the city. The prospect of losing existing park space makes residents livid, and their anger boiled over when the school district announced last year that overcrowding at John Adams would force the district to take back the School Street land for construction of six bungalow classrooms.

Much like other schools in Mid-City, John Adams Elementary is what the school district terms "impacted." The school was built to accommodate 600 to 700 children, but in recent years -- despite limiting enrollment by changing school boundaries, busing 100 kids out of the neighborhood, and shifting sixth graders to Woodrow Wilson Junior High -- John Adams is overflowing with 923 students. Classes are held in the auditorium, the media center, anywhere a teacher can create a sense that class is in session.

Overcrowding and school district "maneuvering" has parents and school officials upset. "It's not an environment optimal for learning," says Robin Reichard, mother of a first-grader. "The class mix is not good, and it's so crowded there's little flexibility to make the right changes." School principal Melinda Martin echoes that frustration. "It's very unpleasant to appear before the community and tell them, 'Well, we have to do this now.' "

The overcrowding at John Adams stems from the double crunch of Mid-City's expanding student population and the recent state mandate for class-size reduction. "When the economy turned sour in San Diego in the early 1990s," explains Jan Hintzman, acting director of the school district's facilities planning department, "the student population in Mid-City soared, perhaps because more than one family occupied a single residence. Our projections were off." Then in 1994 the state mandated that classes for kindergarten through third-graders have no more than 20 students, forcing the school to find more classrooms for its overflowing population. "By 1994, we knew drastic action was needed," Hintzman says.

The parents and residents of Normal Heights acknowledge the school district has a difficult situation on its hands, but sympathy is dampened by their perception that school officials have been short-sighted and unresponsive. "They focus on costs now," says Scott Kessler, executive director of the Adams Avenue Business Association. "Their two-year projections can't possibly incorporate the community's needs."

The planning committee's Weber, a parent of two John Adams graduates who are now college-age, has a broader perspective. "I was talking to then-school board representative Bob Filner about the overcrowding at John Adams in the early 1980s," he says, "and Jan Hintzman was his aide at the time. The school district is in a perennial state of denial."

The continuing problems at John Adams has forced even school board representative Ottinger to admit school district and school board culpability. "We've taken too much of a Band-Aid approach to this problem for too long," he says. That acknowledgment underlies the school board's intention to construct another elementary school in the neighborhood, but ground-breaking for that school is a long ways off, and the school district maintains that John Adams needs a minimum of six more classrooms to house 120 students in the coming 1998-1999 school year. The only place to put them is the School Street Park.

When the district's bungalow plans for School Street Park came to light in late 1996, the community countered with a plan of its own. They approached Bob Isip, minister of the Normal Heights Methodist Church, to discuss the four rental houses the church and a former pastor owned on the north side of School Street, just across from the park. Community representatives figured the church could lease the land to the school district for construction of bungalows. Pastor Isip gave the idea tentative approval, and in March of 1997, a church-community coalition submitted their plan to the school district. But negotiations got hung up on the issue of financing the cost of the bungalows and then negotiations stopped altogether.

"It seemed like everyone was waiting for someone else to do something," says Pastor Isip. But Mike Magers, former president of the John Adams Parent-Teachers Community Organization (the John Adams equivalent of the PTA) has a different take on the situation. "It was the old school district stall," he says. "They don't act on any option but their own, and then they say that time has run out. That's how we lost the kindergarten playground."

The kindergarten-playground skirmish began a year earlier when Principal Martin announced at the September 1995 parent-teachers' meeting that the equipment on the kindergarten playground was too dangerous; for their own safety the kindergarten kids would join the other children on the school's primary playground. That didn't make sense to Magers, who was president of the PTCO at the time.

"We had never heard of any complaints or accidents," he says. Nonetheless, the kindergarten kids began to play on the main playground. Several weeks later, Magers, who lives across the street from the school, saw surveyors measuring the now-empty kindergarten playground site and discovered that the district intended to place a bungalow there. With two weeks to mobilize the community, Magers gathered 500 signatures on a petition against the bungalow idea and appeared at the school board meeting with 35 parents and picket signs. His efforts were too late. The school district, citing the urgent need for classroom space and the absence of any other options, won approval for the measure. Two weeks later the kindergarten playground disappeared.

With that defeat fresh in their minds, community representatives scrambled to come up with a bungalow-financing alternative. Meanwhile, the school district was winning parents over to the bungalows-in-the-park idea by juxtaposing that action with others, such as multitrack scheduling and busing, which parents considered worse. It was the threat of busing that supplied the answer to the financing dilemma.

The school district spends $750 a year to bus a child out of the Normal Heights neighborhood. Community representatives convinced Ottinger that the $750 per student could be used to finance other options: use that money to pay for a construction loan to build ten permanent classroom facilities on the church land. Those ten classrooms could house a total of 200 students, generating $150,000 of cash flow each year. If the school district leased the classrooms for seven years, the project broke even. After the school district vacated the classrooms, the church could use the facilities or rent them out for community events.

The school district resisted the revived community plan and the Ottinger-sanctioned financing. They said leasing permanent facilities in the neighborhood would delay construction of the new area school promised by the school board. The community went ballistic. A coalition of residents, parents, and business owners met with Ottinger in October and told him they would mount a recall effort if planning for the new school was suspended or "one blade of grass was plowed under in Normal Heights."

By November of 1997, school district officials had retracted their statements about a possible delay in the construction of the new area school and spoke of working "for the good of the children." Ron Ottinger characterized the community's proposal as "an unprecedented opportunity to find a solution to school overcrowding throughout Mid-City." At their November meeting, the school board gave unanimous approval to proceed with the community's plan.

It's quiet now on School Street, but undercurrents ripple through the neighborhood. The school district's statement suggested that "all parties must cooperate to a very high degree" for the plan to succeed. But cooperation may be difficult to achieve. The church has established two committees to study the issue, and a vote is expected in mid-February.

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