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LAUSD TO READJUST NEEDS AS ENROLLMENT CHANGES.

Byline: NAUSH BOGHOSSIAN

Staff Writer

Hundreds of thousands of students are scheduled to stream back into Los Angeles Unified schools today for the start of the fall session as the district grapples with declining enrollment and the sixth year of a massive construction program.

A projected 700,000 students will be enrolled in the LAUSD this year -- official figures are expected in October -- down from last year's 708,000, officials said Tuesday.

The slipping student figures come, however, as the district has built 67 new schools and still has 77 to go in its $19.2 billion construction program -- the largest public-works program in the nation.

Faced with the dropping enrollment -- and rising construction costs -- in the coming months, the school board could be forced to reconsider the envisioned scope of its building program.

"The program is still on track to deliver two-semester neighborhood schools by 2012, and we have a very big year coming up in our construction program," said Guy Mehula, the LAUSD's chief facilities executive, noting that eight schools -- including three in the San Fernando Valley -- will open in the 2007-08 school year.

"Our biggest challenges remain the construction capacity in Los Angeles, the number of contractors and labor we have available to do this program. ... Financially, ... we're not letting the cost escalations cause us to fall short in the quantity of what we build or the quality of what we build."

The new school year also marks a milestone 39 schools that will convert from multitrack, year-round schedules to traditional schedules -- 10 of them in the Valley.

Of the 39 schools, nine have been year-round schools for 25 years.

"The 39 schools going off multitrack this year is a tremendous indicator of the capacity we've built," Mehula said. "Twenty-five years is a long time for a school to be on multitrack that was supposed to be short-term."

New school board member Tamar Galatzan, who represents parts of the San Fernando Valley, said she hopes the schools that go off multitrack will see an improvement in student achievement.

"Hopefully, what we're going to see from these schools that are returning to a traditional calendar is higher test scores and more engaged students and parents," said Galatzan, whose son will begin kindergarten today.

Before leaving his post, former Superintendent Roy Romer warned the committee charged with overseeing bond money for the construction program that costs could fuel a $2 billion to $3 billion shortfall.

Romer launched the construction program in 2000 by winning passage of the first bond to address a shortage of 160,000 student seats.

Mehula said he plans to go to the school board in a month to update members and present a list of schools that are necessary to meet the goal of the program: getting all students to a two-semester school in their neighborhood by 2012.

The district still has 142 schools on year-round calendars, down from 220 five years ago, Mehula said.

LAUSD officials are also working on getting two key pieces of legislation passed this year to make sure they get state matching funds needed for the construction program.

Mehula projected that about 23 percent of every new construction project will be funded through the state, and legislation waiting for the governor's signature will ensure that the district gets the full 50 percent match in state money.

Of the $19.2 billion construction program, $12.5 billion is coming from local taxpayer dollars through four bonds. The rest is from state matching funds.

"Some (of the deficit) gets reduced by the state match, and some of it will get reduced by the projects we don't need," Mehula said.

He said he will present the school board a list of about 16 schools that have been identified for construction projects that are not necessary to reach the goal of two-semester neighborhood schools for all LAUSD students.

Last September, the district kicked off the 2006-07 year by opening seven new schools, followed by the largest single-day opening of high schools in October in the district's history -- all in the east San Fernando Valley.

The district began the 2005-06 school year with what officials called the historic opening of 13 new schools. Only 24 schools had opened between 1972 and 1999.

Galatzan said she supports returning all schools to a traditional calendar and relieving overcrowding. But although the district is experiencing a decline in enrollment, parts of the San Fernando Valley -- especially the Porter Ranch area -- are still growing and adding students to the school system.

"As we're coming to the tail end of our building plans ... we need to keep those demographics in mind because regardless what our plans were when we started, we have to make sure we're building schools where the kids are and where the kids will be," said Galatzan, whose own son will start kindergarten today.

"It would be great if we had all the money in the world to build but we don't, so we're going to have to take a hard, long look at our priorities."

naush.boghossian(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3722
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 5, 2007
Words:846
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