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Proposed District Secession Fans Racial Flames

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Officially, what some residents of Aptos, Calif., are attempting to do in the sprawling Pajaro Valley school district is called "reorganization." But many critics are calling it white flight.

Some 6,000 residents, about a third of the 18,000 registered voters in the largely middle-class communities of Aptos, Corralitos, and La Selva Beach have signed on to an effort to break away from the Pajaro Valley district, which stretches south into neighboring Monterey County. The roughly 17,500-student district is Santa Cruz County's largest and fastest growing, with Hispanic students making up most of that growth.

The biggest area that the breakup would leave behind is Watsonville, home to 33,000 residents and the district's administration. In recent years, the city has drawn more migrant workers from Mexico to harvest strawberries in area farms. But along with that growth, the area has lost many higher-paying jobs as local canneries shut down.

The residents of unincorporated Aptos and its environs, some of whom work in nearby Silicon Valley, tend to be wealthier and predominantly white.

The secession effort has triggered charges of racism from opponents, who point to the demographics of the proposed Aptos school district. The existing Pajaro Valley district is only 27 percent white; the proposed Aptos district would be 80 percent white.

In addition, critics say, the breakup would mean financial hardship for what's left of the Pajaro Valley district because property values in Aptos are much higher than those in the rest of the district.

Those who support the breakup reject the racism charges. They say they want more local control over their schools and think smaller is better. While the plan gained qualified support from the Santa Cruz County office of education last December, it still must pass muster with the state board of education--a review that state officials say is months away--and, ultimately, local voters.

But even if the plan fails and the district stays intact, many residents say they fear their district already may be irreparably divided.

Cultural Differences

Barbara J. Palmer, a longtime Aptos resident and the mother of two students, said after years of hearing local parents complain about feeling shut out by the Pajaro Valley district, she decided to launch a secession petition last August.

"We were the minority, and we were treated as such" by the district, Ms. Palmer said. Aptos-area students make up 20 percent of the district's enrollment. Three of the seven members on Pajaro Valley's school board represent at least part of the Aptos area and support the split.

Aptos-area parents also said they were frustrated with paying to support a high-growth school district when they live in areas with deliberate slow-growth policies. The district bureaucracy is too big and student test scores are too low, they said.

Some point to escalating racial tension at Aptos High School. Roughly five years ago, the district started busing students--mostly Hispanic--from Watsonville High School to Aptos High School to alleviate severe overcrowding.

"Culturally, we're just two separate communities with different needs," said Bruce E. Mathias, an Aptos parent who favors secession.

Many parents point out that Aptos used to have its own elementary school district in the 1960s before it was consolidated into the Pajaro Valley system.

And, according to secession supporters like Doug Kaplan, a school board member and parent from Aptos, most schools wouldn't see big changes in their racial and ethnic makeup under the plan because most children in the district attend neighborhood schools. Six of the 23 schools now in the Pajaro Valley system would leave that district to make up the new 3,600-student Aptos district. Those six schools are all in the Aptos area.

Parents such as Ms. Palmer take umbrage at accusations of racism; they see themselves as helping to save public education. She said many of her neighbors have removed their children from the district's public schools and enrolled them in private schools rather than fight to improve the system.

Foes Cry Foul

The opposition--which includes a majority of the district's school board and the Watsonville City Council--says the Aptos parents have wrongly blamed many of the schools' problems on the Hispanic students.

And they cry foul because of the plan's fiscal impact. The Aptos district would take 35 percent of the existing district's land and 25 percent of its classroom capacity but only 19 percent of its students, according to a study commissioned by Pajaro Valley district officials.

"I think if we, as a board, had decided to eliminate overcrowding in the schools so white kids in Aptos would have more elbow room and homogeneity, we would've been hauled into federal court," said Jamie Marks, a school board member who lives between Aptos and Watsonville. Her two children attend schools in Aptos because of overcrowding.

Many of Pajaro Valley's schools are severely overcrowded--four are on year-round schedules and a fifth may soon join them--so classroom space is at a premium. The district had planned to build a new high school in Watsonville and at least two more elementary schools.

Secession critics say they doubt whether the district would be able to pass the hefty bond measure needed to start construction without the help of the Aptos-area communities to the north. Pajaro Valley would lose nearly half of its property-tax base under the Aptos plan. The district has a $78.5 million annual budget.

An estimated 1,000 students from the Watsonville area attend Aptos schools that would break away under the plan--the majority of them at Aptos High. While petition backers have said they would not turn out those students until Pajaro Valley had a place for them, they acknowledge that, for now, they would not be legally bound to keep them in Aptos schools.

This is not the first time Pajaro Valley has had secessionists in its midst. A few years ago, part of the district's southern section broke away. But the move wasn't as heated as the current fight, Watsonville city officials said, because it didn't take any schools with it--or as much wealth as the latest secession plan would.

The possibility of a breakup on a much bigger scale, meanwhile, is looming in Los Angeles, where grassroots secession movements have picked up steam. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

By law, the California state school board is supposed to review district-reorganization plans with nine criteria in mind, including their impact on racial balance and finances. If the Aptos plan garners state approval, the state will decide who can vote on the issue--only those who would part of the new district or everyone in the existing district. That decision alone could seal the plan's fate. The plan may also face legal challenges.

The state tends to receive more proposals to consolidate districts than break them apart. But when a breakup is sought, charges of racist motivations are not uncommon, state officials said.

For now, parents in Pajaro Valley wait.

"We've gotten through earthquakes, and people came together for that," Ms. Marks said. "But this is far worse."

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