HERE’S a message for the people of Van Nuys who are in the path of proposed Elementary School 14: Be wary of school officials’ claims about needing new schools. Very wary. The Los Angeles Unified School District has long-term plans to build a new elementary school off Vanowen Street, where several houses now stand. The residents, as you might expect, are a little concerned about that, even though it’s years in the future. Imagine how they might feel if they knew the district didn’t really need the new school. More than one neighborhood has already experienced that, and some are questioning the logic behind the LAUSD’s massive building program. The school district has more than $15 billion of bond money to spend – money that you and I generously donate through our property-tax bills twice a year. While the building spree has produced some truly attractive, not to mention desperately needed, campuses, not all of the projects seem to be in the best interests of their respective communities. It’s almost as if school officials are committed to the overall master-building plans and are damn sure not going to let little things like facts, changing demographics or community opposition get in their way. Case in point is LAUSD site 9A, an unlovely name for what is now an extremely unlovely city block. Site 9A is how the LAUSD refers to the one-block area just south of Sunset Boulevard and west of Alvarado Boulevard in Echo Park, one of L.A’s oldest neighborhoods, where it wants to build an elementary school. But the LAUSD ran into stiff opposition by residents and community activists who didn’t want to see the historic neighborhood bulldozed. Even City Council President Eric Garcetti, who represents the 9A area, asked the district to find another site. LAUSD officials didn’t listen and pressed ahead. They condemned the homes of 200 people – some of whom had lived for generations in their old homes. LAUSD officials did this with full enmity of the community and despite the fact that even their own figures show that enrollment has been dropping – not just districtwide, but also at the nearest neighborhood school, Logan Elementary, which has lost more than 500 students in five years. This is in no small part due to the fact that Echo Park is gentrifying in a manner similar to what neighboring Silver Lake went through a decade ago. What that means, besides higher property values and hip coffee joints, is a declining kid population. Yuppies and hipsters have fewer babies than poor immigrants. That’s not a judgment; it’s a fact. However, this fact didn’t deter the LAUSD one bit. So opponents instead took the district to court on the basis of an environmental impact report. In December, a judge ruled against the district in a surprising but bittersweet victory. The hope is that after the court smackdown, the LAUSD will finally drop plans for 9A forever and allow those who want to – and can – to buy their homes back, less the cost of depreciation from sitting empty so long. Meanwhile, the condemned homes sit vacant, making a virtual ghost town out of what was a once-vibrant community of middle-class families – families that might have been served by that school. Residents in Granada Hills are currently living through another version of Site 9A. The district is hellbent on building a new high school on the site of the vacant Granada Hills Community Hospital, despite community hope that someday a hospital might return. Besides, doesn’t the district already have a half-dozen vacant campuses in the West Valley? What’s more, the LAUSD’s total enrollment continues to drop by thousands every year. This year, K-12 enrollment is down to 708,461 from 746,610 in 2003. That’s a decline of more than 38,000 students. Who can estimate how much more those numbers might drop by the time the LAUSD has evicted residents of 22 homes and built Van Nuys Elementary School 14? The moral of this story is that the district’s building plans aren’t necessarily in the best interests of every community. Of course, the LAUSD still needs to build schools, but it also needs to be flexible enough to be both relevant and welcome in each neighborhood. A lawsuit and a bitter community are no way to start a new-school relationship. But this story is also a message of hope. The LAUSD might be an intimidatingly huge bureaucracy with a tendency to marginalize community members, but it doesn’t always get its way. Mariel Garza is a columnist and editorial writer for the Los Angeles Daily News. Write to her by e-mail at [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!