School parents fear changes
Canan Tasci, Staff Writer
Created: 05/07/2011 10:04:30 PM PDT

POMONA – It’s a nightmare turned real for some districts that are cash-strapped – the closure of a school.

Faced with a $28 million deficit, Pomona Unified School District board members on Wednesday will consider closing Mendoza Elementary School and moving its students to Lopez Elementary School, one block away.

Superintendent Richard Martinez said “the consolidation of the two schools seems to be the least painful.”

“To move (to Lopez) in such a quick fashion, I know, is shocking for parents. We know it is very difficult for the staff and the community because the school is 100 years old, and there has been many people who have been there for two or three generations,” Martinez said of Mendoza Elementary, which was set to celebrate its centennial next school year.

“I understand the connection and emotional attachment, and even though the students will be across the street, this was home, this was in some cases everything they’ve known.”

Mendoza Elementary currently has only prekindergarten to third-grade students, while Lopez has been serving fourth- through sixth-grade students.

In addition, district officials have discussed relocating students from the Park Avenue High alternative school – on West Second Street – onto Mendoza’s campus, pending budget decisions in Sacramento and if the elementary school can be converted to an alternative school site.

At a community meeting last week, Martinez explained that with the district $28 million short for the next school year, it leaves it with 43 sites to take care of and four to eight sites it cannot afford.

The district has tough decisions that need to be made in the next 12 to 24 months, and there will be other schools that will be affected, Martinez said at the community meeting.

He said the district is awaiting word from Sacramento on the amount of funds it will receive.

“We’ll have to anticipate plans of further cuts that we currently haven’t anticipated, and we won’t be alone with this one.”

At the meeting last week, parents, students and staff members of both elementary schools filled Mendoza’s cafeteria in protest of the possible change.

Parents voiced concerns about the safety and comfort level of their children, as well as opposition to having the at-risk alternative students from Park West move into the Mendoza campus.

“We’re a tight community with parent volunteers, and the staff is caring and compassionate. We’re just afraid it is not going to continue to be like that at a bigger school,” said Esmeralda Pulido, who has children in both Mendoza and Lopez.

“But our deepest concern is that the Park West kids are going to come to this school (Mendoza), and that concerns me because they are older. There are drugs and gangs, and our little ones are going to be exposed to that environment, and we’re really afraid of that.”

Martinez said he is happy to hear parents are concerned for their children’s education and safety, but parents’ concerns about alternative school students being bad are not valid.

“These are students who are behind in credit or have attendance issues, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are the one student who got in trouble or is being expelled for some egregious behavior,” he said.

During the community meeting, some parents mentioned the high school students are marijuana smokers, Martinez said.

“Unfortunately, you can go to any comprehensive school and you’re going to find a variety of students who might be abusing drugs, and so it’s not just alternative schools that see that,” he said.

“We don’t have a gang issue at Park West, we do have gang members that do attend Park West, but we also have gang members who attend our comprehensive high schools. The schools still are considered safe environments where students can attend and learn and they can have lunch and respect the campus as if it’s a church.”

Moving Park West students to Mendoza is not a done deal, officials said.

If the board determines that Mendoza will be used as an alternative school, then Park West would be closed, said Leslie Barnes, PUSD’s assistant superintendent of business services and chief financial officer.

About 184 students are enrolled at Park West.

Budget decisions in Sacramento will determine what will happen to a closed Park West campus, Barnes said.

“If the district is able to keep (adult education) running next year, then they would most likely use the campus since it is adjacent to their facility,” she said. “If this is not the case, and the district is able to lease or sell a property that currently houses a district program, then that program would be relocated to the Park West site.”

Also on Wednesday night, board members will announce the new Lopez principal for the fall.

Parents of Mendoza Elementary at the community meeting were upset to hear they may lose their principal as well as teachers.

Four Mendoza parents handed Martinez a folder that had more than 400 signatures from parents and community members urging the district to keep Principal Alicia McMullin.

“She is so connected to the students and walks out to make sure kids are safe – rain or shine,” said Estela Ortega, Mendoza campus supervisor.

Barnes said Mendoza teachers will be transferred to Lopez automatically.

“However, the teachers’ bargaining agreement allows the teachers to request a transfer when they wish to leave a site,” she said.

“At this time I do not know the timeline but the only reason the Mendoza teachers would not end up at Lopez is that they put in for a transfer to another site, they left the district, or they are a junior teacher and were part of the district layoff process. Because the two sites do not have duplication in the grade levels, teachers on not competing for positions at Lopez.”

More school closures, reducing adult and career education and parent education classes, as well as other programs could be jeopardized if there are additional cuts to PUSD’s budget, Martinez said.

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