A standing-room-only crowd in the La Cañada Unified School District’s board room was divided between the attendees in the yellow “One City, One School District” buttons and those in the yellow “Keep GUSD Whole” buttons.
At the first of two hearings about the issue on Wednesday, Oct. 26, members of the Los Angeles County Office of Education Committee on School District Organization heard three-plus hours of arguments for and against the proposed territory transfer. It would redraw the school boundaries for the 385-acre area in westernmost La Cañada Flintridge and assign students who historically have attended Glendale Unified to La Cañada Unified schools.
The second hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 2, after the Outlook’s print deadline, at Crescenta Valley High School.
The County Committee on School District Organization — which rules on school district boundaries — formally accepted a petition on Sept. 7, after which it had 60 days to hold two hearings to field comments from stakeholders. Following the hearings, the committee will have as many as 120 days to complete its evaluation and make a decision.
At the initial hearing, the committee heard from representatives from both school districts and UniteLCF, the citizens’ committee that successfully brought forth the petition asking for consideration of the transfer.
Tom Smith, one of UniteLCF’s chief petitioners, described the nearly half-century-long push to shift the boundaries as a David-and-Goliath battle: “Sagebrush represents a tiny fraction of the GUSD relative to its overall size,” he said. “They are the Goliath and Sagebrush is the David.”
GUSD Superintendent Winfred Roberson said the comparison wasn’t apt. “We were described as the Goliath to their David, and I question that because that 1% [of the GUSD tax base that’s comprised by Sagebrush residents] represents $2.7 million in revenue, and that’s a lot of money,” Roberson said. “It could lead to employee layoffs, it impacts programs. Just as a limb could not be severed from the body without significant impacts on the body as a whole, so it is true with this transfer if it were to go forward.”
And at their district meeting Tuesday, GUSD school board members voted unanimously against the transfer, signing off on a resolution that reportedly cited the “potential closure of a district school” among the reasons for their opposition.
That concern counters previous claims made by GUSD during negotiations in 2014, when the district sought to assure families that it would be able to maintain enrollment at Mountain Avenue by creating permissible attendance areas to allow students a choice of Mountain Avenue and nearby Monte Vista or Fremont schools and by enhancing academic program offerings at the school. GUSD stated then that a shift of an additional 25 students each year for six years would maintain the school’s student population.
In 2014, GUSD board member Greg Krikorian said he believed GUSD’s Mountain Avenue Elementary School stood to benefit from the transfer if class sizes shrank, though negotiations then also consisted of financial compensation for the transfer that is now off the table: “If I was a parent and my kids were going to Mountain Avenue, I would say, ‘Cool man. I’m going to be protected.’”
Last week, at that first committee hearing, Roberson questioned LCUSD’s ability to immediately take on another approximate 200 students (in addition to the 117 Sagebrush students who have already been granted permits to attend LCUSD schools.) He referred to a special board meeting on Nov. 24, at which LCUSD board members voted to support a resolution that included language regarding a forthcoming feasibility plan involving the city and Sagebrush citizens should the transfer takes place.
“This transfer has not necessarily been mitigated,” Roberson said. “The only way they can support it is if there is a proposed mitigation plan that does not harm the students of La Cañada and their current financial situation. We have not seen that plan.”
La Cañada Flintridge Mayor Jonathan Curtis, however, was on hand to guarantee that the city would help identify financial solutions to make the transfer feasible because, as he put it, “our schools are the heart and soul of our city.”
LCUSD Governing Board member Ellen Multari said that most of the significant ongoing costs from a transfer would be offset by per-pupil revenue.
Nick Karapetian, a Sagebrush parent whose children attend LCUSD schools on a permit, introduced the argument that safety concerns should be the overriding consideration.
He said he harbored concerns about reaching his children during an emergency situation because, beside the footbridge over Pickens Canyon, families in the Sagebrush neighborhood have to drive down to Foothill Boulevard in order to access Mountain Avenue School.
Karapetian also compared GUSD’s reliance on “overlapping safety agencies” with LCUSD’s agreement with only two, the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.” He suggested that it would be more efficient and effective to have fewer agencies responding.
GUSD officials bristled at that notion: “Student safety and employee safety is the highest priority in our district. Mountain Avenue has a comprehensive safety plan that’s available for all to see. Our teachers and administrators … go through training, they go through drills, what to do if there’s a fire, how to protect students. And it is my understanding that the [Crescenta Valley] Sheriff’s Department is right up the street from Mountain Avenue.”
James Bodnar, a GUSD parent opposed to the transfer, wondered whether it is a conflict that a former LCUSD Governing Board member sits on the committee deciding the fate of the territory.
Joel Peterson is among the committee’s 11 members, appointed by the county’s respective supervisors. Peterson was appointed by Supervisor Michael Antonovich. His term is set to expire this fall.
“You have a very important decision to make,” Bodnar said. “It’s very important that that decision be made without a conflict of interest, and I have a serious concern about one of your board members. … It is not appropriate for him to be sitting on this board while you guys are making this decision.”
Following the hearing, UniteLCF’s Smith — who has moved out of state but plans to return for Sagebrush-related events — said he did not see an issue with Peterson’s participation.
“Joel is our representative,” Smith said. “We have every right to sit down and have a conversation with him as long as those emails don’t cross the line and we don’t ask him to do something [inappropriate], we’re perfectly fine. Talking to our elected or appointed representative is part of the democratic process.”
Much of the discussion, naturally, had to do with the notion of community cohesion, which has been a rallying cry of UniteLCF supporters since the issue was broached again almost four years ago at a City Council meeting.
Ken Green, a Sagebrush resident whose children attended GUSD schools, said his kids struggled with their local identity because they weren’t able to attend school with their neighbors.
“Our kids started telling fellow students that they were from La Crescenta; they were embarrassed to tell certain classmates that they lived in La Cañada because when they did, students would make fun of them for being rich kids from La Cañada,” Green said. “Yet, when they were at church in La Cañada, they told people that they lived by Palm Crest. They lied about where they lived to both communities to be included.”
But Sagebrush resident Dan DiMundo, a principal within GUSD, said he and his family moved to their neighborhood because the Glendale district fit them best.
“In 2008, when we moved down to Southern California, we made the informed decision to purchase a house … specifically because it’s in the Glendale Unified School District; it’s exactly why we wanted Sagebrush.”
He said that his children have participated in Crescenta-Cañada YMCA and area sports in which there was more LCUSD student involvement than GUSD.
“I think it’s incumbent on families to make themselves part of a community,” he said. “Just being at a city school doesn’t do that.”
Representing LCUSD, the district where he formerly studied and served as Governing Board president, Andrew Blumenfeld asked for everyone to remain focused on the most important part of the equation: the kids.
“It’s too easy in situations like this for our worst instincts to be portrayed,” he said. “We let facts get encased in a big shadow of apocalyptic rhetoric. I just hope that as the hearings come to a close tonight, the community will see through all of that to your North Star, which is really doing what’s best for kids.”