San Diego 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.