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School district under pressure

Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District on edge due to student suicide, financial crisis

Posted: November 1, 2008 8:58 p.m.
Updated: January 3, 2009 5:00 a.m.

Dan Alfrey, former president of the district's Civil Service Employee Association, expresses his outrage over the Jeremiah Lasater suicide to the Acton-Agua Dulce school board on Oct. 23.

A tragedy that cut deeply into a close-knit community, a financial crisis that threatens to shut a high school's doors - these are tough times at the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District, a school board official says.

The district's school board voted 5-0 Thursday to hire a risk-management firm to conduct an investigation into the suicide of Jeremiah Lasater.

The 14-year-old freshman shot and killed himself in the Vasquez High School boys' bathroom Oct. 20.
The tragedy left the community stunned and added more pressure to a school district on the edge, said Ron Bird, school board vice president.

Measure CF, known as the Children First bond, is a $13 million bond to construct a permanent building at Vasquez High. The campus has never been more than a collection of portables next to the Highway 14 freeway.

The bond, which Acton and Agua Dulce voters will approve or reject Tuesday, is the fifth of its type since 2002. All four previous bonds failed.

If this next attempt fails, it could spell doom for the high school, Bird said. "If we don't pass the bond, some people in the community are going to advocate de-unifying," he said.

A successful de-unification effort would send Acton and Agua Dulce high school students to Antelope Valley Unified School District to complete their educations and set the district back, said Mark Distaso, school board president.

The school district was a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade district until 1993.

"People asked why we were sending kids that far for school," Distaso said. The community voted to become a unified school district, but a school construction bond was not part of the package, he said.

"It was an unfunded initiative," Bird said of switching from a kindergarten-through-eight-grade to a K-to-12-grade school district.

High Desert School housed junior high school and high school students until the Vasquez High campus opened in 1999. The campus remains a circle of portables without a single permanent structure.

"CF shows our commitment to our students and education," Distaso said.

But many in the community don't share his vision.

"They've got their eye focused on a building," said Dan Alfrey, school employee and former president of the district's Civil Service Employee Association. "Buildings don't teach kids," he said.

The district closed Acton Elementary School in 2003 and laid off teachers, who were never rehired.

"That engendered a lot of animosity toward the district and is one of the reasons I ran," Distaso said.

The animosity ripples through the community; bond measures were turned down time after time, Distaso said. He can't pinpoint the seed of bond opposition in the community.

But finding vocal opponents isn't hard, Distaso said.

One bond opponent sits right next to Distaso at board meetings. "I know this sounds strange, but I oppose the bond," Bird said.

He wants to see a bond that funds repairs to other district schools, some of which are in dire in need, he said.

"A failed bond doesn't automatically de-unify the district," Distaso said. But it would give the de-unification movement steam, he said.

The sentiment in Acton-Agua Dulce echoes up the Hwy 14 freeway to the halls of the Antelope Valley Unified School District. "We are keeping a close eye on the bond vote," said Jeff Foster, deputy superintendent.

Acton residents would have to de-unify the district and approach the Antelope Valley district about sending children to high school there, Foster said. "If we were approached we would give it full consideration," he said.

As the Acton school district wrestles with financial issues, Superintendent Stan Halperin is forced to split duties between being an administrator and helping with an investigation. "I am the point person for the district," he said.

The investigation conducted by Keenan and Associates, a risk-management firm based on Torrance, will piece together a timeline of the events on Oct. 20 preceding Lasater's death.

Halperin says the questions are simple: "What led to this and what part did the school district play in any of this?"

Halperin expects the investigation to take two to four months.

Distaso's expectations are loftier. "We want to learn from this so Jeremiah's death wasn't in vain," he said.


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