A group of Mar Vista residents are mulling over the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District to stop the construction of a charter school.
On Jan. 20, the LAUSD Facilities Management Division awarded Ocean Charter School a 2-acre plot at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista in an effort to alleviate tensions brought on during “colocation spring” last year, when a plethora of charter schools sought classroom space at Westside neighborhood schools in March and April.
“We don’t want to (consider legal action), but we have to protect our way of life and our position as homeowners,” Linnea von Wissmann, who lives a few blocks from Walgrove, told The Argonaut.
Von Wissmann and several of her friends and neighbors feel that awarding a charter school – especially Ocean Charter, whose students share facilities with the elementary school – the right to build on the Walgrove site is an infringement on their rights as property owners not to be forced to contend with what they believe are unnecessary and unwanted activities that disturb their quality of life.
Early morning traffic jams, late night disturbances and at times the inability to park on their own streets are some of the complaints that the homeowners have raised since Ocean Charter began colocating with Walgrove almost six years ago. With as many as 500 students potentially arriving at the new school within three to four years, they believe that traffic around their neighborhood will only become more congested.
Von Wissman, who is a paralegal, said she is currently compiling a list of specific reasons why she and others oppose another school being built on the Walgrove campus.
“We are also consulting realtors about how the impact of a school that can hold 500 students will have on our neighborhood,” she added.
In an Oct. 27 interview with Von Wissmann and several of her neighbors, she stated that a lawsuit was not out of the question if LAUSD proceeded with the land lease proposal.
“I believe that the school district has a duty to the community not to create a dangerous situation in a residential neighborhood,” Von Wissman said.
“They have dropped a bomb in our neighborhood, and the idea that they are going to create more pollution, more traffic, gridlock and more people is wrong.”
Mike Newhouse, a Venice resident who is a real estate attorney, said plaintiffs in lawsuits must typically establish that they have standing in an action before a court will hear their case.
“A plaintiff would also have to prove that the actions of the other party have caused them some injury,” explained Newhouse, a former president of the Venice Neighborhood Council.
Parents whose children attend Walgrove have also complained about Ocean Charter’s faculty, which they claim did not display any desire to collaborate with them until the charter school was notified last year that the bungalows that house its students would be removed this year.
“Ninety percent of the teachers, staff, parents and children of Walgrove Elementary do not want Ocean Charter co-locating with us. We have had a terrible relationship with them for five years,” wrote Troy Takaki, the father of two daughters who attend Walgrove, in a letter to LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer. “Having them build a school in the corner of our school, is not the answer.
“(Ocean Charter School) has been such (a) terrible community member (and) many, many neighbors don’t want any new charter school there.”
Ocean Charter parents began volunteering in September at the beginning and end of each school day to direct traffic and parking away from much of the residential neighborhood that surrounds Walgrove. They have pledged that they will continue to do more to work with their neighbors.
“We have an immense amount of work to do,” Evan Labb, an Ocean Charter parent, acknowledged. “We’re committed to working with the neighbors and parents of the Walgrove community.”
Zimmer, who represents Mar Vista, announced June 15 last year that the district would issue a request for proposal to charter schools to petition for the unoccupied land at Walgrove.
He said that as an elected representative, the question for him was balancing two rights: those of students whose families have chosen charter schools, and the rights of community schools to grow programs that they hope will bring children back to neighborhood schools.
“Those two pressures kind of collided this spring,” Zimmer said at a community meeting. “And so my staff and the district facilities’ staff have really been trying to come up with long-term solutions so that we don’t have to go through having to choose between two things that are right every spring and having a lot of tension in the community.”
Ocean Charter and Green Dot Public Schools, the choice of many Mar Vista parents like Takaki, were the only schools to apply for the land lease agreement.
Per a 2000 ballot initiative, Proposition 39, charter schools were given the right to solicit unused space on school campuses where such space existed. The sharing of facilities such as playgrounds, auditoriums, libraries and classrooms between neighborhood schools and charters is called colocation and has become one of the unintended consequences of Prop. 39.
Tensions arising from colocations have occurred at many of the schools in District 4, which includes Westchester, Del Rey, Venice and Mar Vista. And with the explosion of charters on the Westside, LAUSD officials are expecting Prop. 39 requests again this spring.
Sandi and Eric Wise, who are also considering joining the possible legal action against LAUSD, live less than a block from Ocean Charter. Sandi Wise said she believes the land lease proposal is outside the bounds of Prop. 39.
“It doesn’t say anywhere in there where charter schools are required to lease land,” she noted. “Everyone in the city is complaining about how there’s no open space on the Westside and now they want to take away what little that we have?”
Newhouse said while it was very possible that the homeowners would be able to convince a judge that they have standing in a legal action, the more difficult part could be proving how the land lease has adversely affected their lifestyles.
“A judge would be looking at the statute that a plaintiff is alleging was violated, or to determine if (in this case a land lease agreement) was allowed,” he said.
In an interview last month with The Argonaut, Zimmer talked about his decision to offer the land at Walgrove to a charter school and its potential impact on the nearby homeowners.
“I’m not sure if we’re doing the right thing at Walgrove,” the school board member acknowledged. “I have no idea.
“I know it’s not the right thing for the neighbors. If I lived there, I’d be furious. But really, what am I going to do?”
Zimmer added that the land lease idea at Walgrove was not his first choice, but because there is not a great deal of available land on the Westside, he did not have many options.
Von Wissmann said she had written to Zimmer regarding her concerns and was not impressed with the board member’s response. That is one of the reasons that she and others are consulting with legal experts on how to protect their property interests.
“We’re talking about resistance and persistence,” she said.
The school board must still approve the decision by the district’s facilities division. The vote is set for Feb. 14.