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Oakland Boycott Spurs School-Facilities Promise

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A three-week boycott of an Oakland, Calif., elementary school ended last week when district officials agreed to replace the school's 40-year-old portable classrooms.

Parents began keeping their children out of class on May 16 to protest the district's $700,000 renovation plan, which aimed only to refurbish the 18 portable classrooms that make up Lazear Elementary School.

As many as 450 of the school's 525 students participated in the boycott.

The parents wanted the district to construct a new building--a multi-million dollar project, according to school officials--or buy new portables.

Renovating the existing portable classrooms would do little to improve the school environment, argued Alicia Rodriguez, one of the leaders of the boycott. The classrooms are small and windowless, she said. In the winter, they are rarely heated, Ms. Rodriguez said, and rainwater leaks through some of the roofs and drops from electrical fixtures onto children.

"I can't imagine how many thousands of dollars have already been spent to repair them," Ms. Rodriguez said. "But whatever's fixed always just breaks again a few weeks later."

The parents and district officials eventually compromised on a plan under which the available $700,000 will be used to replace half of the existing classrooms with new portables, said Noel Gallo, the Oakland school board member who represents the Lazear area.

The school officials also have promised that they will try to raise an estimated $600,000 to replace the remaining portable classrooms.

"I am happy that the parents decided to allow their children to return," said N.Z. Carol, a district spokeswoman. "It was unfortunate that they had to be involved in this."

Parents launched the boycott because of their anger at being left out of renovation discus~~sions that began last fall, Ms. Rodriguez said.

At that time, the district negotiated a land swap with a local developer who is building a shopping mall next to the school. School officials agreed to turn over part of the school's playground in exchange for another parcel of property and $700,000. That money was earmarked to renovate the portables and turn the newly acquired land into new soccer and baseball facilities.

Land Swap

Although district officials said parents were included in the negotiations with the developers, Ms. Rodriguez maintained that the deal was made without their consent.

About 90 percent of Lazear Elementary's parents are of Mexican descent, she said. She contended that concerns about the school have been ignored because the area is impoverished. "It's clearly a situation of the haves and the have-nots," she said.

Parents wanted to fund improvements by combining the available $700,000 with the school's share of a $170 million bond issue passed by the city last year. But district officials said the bond proceeds had to be split among the city's 90 schools and would be paid out over 20 years.

While the parents argued that Lazear Elementary's dilapidated condition justified whatever expenditure would be required to obtain new facilities, district officials noted that many of Oakland's schools date from the 1920's. Completing only the most critical repairs needed in the district's schools would cost about $500 million, Mr. Gallo said.

"The district's needs are such that we're just trying to keep things afloat," he said.

A federal study released earlier this year estimates that U.S. schools need some $112 billion to upgrade or repair their facilities. (See Education Week, 2/8/95.)

Meanwhile, the fate of the first major federal funding for school construction and repair is in doubt. Budget cutters in Congress have trimmed $65 million of the $100 million approved last year for school construction, and the remaining money depends on the Republican leadership's response to President Clinton's veto last week of spending cuts. (See related story.)

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