It wasn’t pretty, but for proponents of the Sagebrush territory transfer, it was sweet.
After complicated, confused deliberation, the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization voted 8-1 on Wednesday to preliminarily approve the transfer of westernmost La Cañada Flintridge from Glendale Unified School District to La Cañada Unified School District.
“We’re delighted at this outcome,” said Tom Smith, one of the chief petitioners behind the request to transfer the 385 acres of LCF, where he lived when this latest attempt to redistrict the territory was initiated four years ago.
Wednesday’s ruling by the county committee is a significant step forward in the latest attempt of many by Sagebrush residents spanning 50-plus years.
For a few minutes, it appeared the petition was denied. A vote by the committee deemed that the transfer proposal had “not substantially met” one of the nine conditions required because; there would be a “significant increase in school housing costs” if LCUSD took on as many as 317 more students from the Sagebrush area.
However, the petition was resuscitated when several committee members who had intended to approve the petition balked at the assertion by chairman Frank Ogaz and others on the county staff that the committee needed to deem all nine conditions “substantially met” for the petition to move forward.
“I asked, ‘Once we denied any part of this petition, can we still go on and vote?’” said John Nunez, of the First Supervisorial District. “And I was told we would be able to vote.”
In fact, the summary and recommendation posted by the county staff includes a section that states: “The Education Code does not mandate that the County Committee deny a petition where all, many or some of the conditions are not substantially met.”
In any case, committee member Susan Andriacchi made a motion to reconsider the seventh condition, about the increase in school housing.
And although, initially, seven of the committee members agreed that LCUSD could not prove that there would not be a significant increase in school housing cost with the additional students, with approval of the petition on the line, they voted 7-1-1 that the condition was met. Only Ogaz voted no. Joel Peterson, formerly a LCUSD Governing Board member, recused himself from that particular vote.
Then, the committee voted again, and approved — preliminarily — the petition.
“This is huge!” said Nick Karapetian, a Sagebrush dad and another of the chief petitioners, along with Nalini Lasiewicz. “This is an ecstatic moment for the Sagebrush community. They validated the reasons and rational for us seeking this transfer.”
GUSD Board Member Greg Krikorian called the proceedings “a three-ring circus.”
“It causes a lot of questions,” he said. “We, as a board, are going to look at legal actions on the way this whole meeting was conducted. I question the integrity of the meeting.”
GUSD can appeal the ruling with the state board of education, but what’s scheduled to happen next as part of the transfer process is a California Environmental Quality Act review, which is expected to take about a year.
Once the committee has the results of that environmental review, the county committee again will vote whether to put the matter to a vote of residents, and who those residents would be.
The committee’s decision countered the recommendation made by the L.A. County Office of Education, which found that the petition failed to meet five of the nine required conditions, including proving that Sagebrush is more substantially tied to the LCUSD community than to GUSD’s.
According to the county’s report, it determines community identity by using criteria such as geography, distance between social centers and school centers, as well as community and social ties.
“An examination of the petition does not indicate a substantially stronger community identity with the La Cañada USD than with the Glendale USD,” the recommendation stated, adding, “while it is clear that the petitioners and their supporters feel a sense of community identity, the region in general shares the same transportation arteries, commercial, recreational, shopping and entertainment centers and, most importantly, students. There is a long tradition of students crossing school district borders to attend other … schools.”
But committee members disagreed.
“I have found that this is a particular benefit to having [district] boundaries be co-terminous,” said committee member A.J. Willmer, a representative from Beverly Hills. “We share all sorts of services across government entities, and sharing between school districts and municipalities makes a big difference. I see a better community if we approve this.”
In its presentation to the committee early in the four-plus-hour proceedings, GUSD Superintendent Winfred Roberson reiterated that his district would face negative financial impacts by the loss of the Sagebrush territory.
Alison Deegan, regionalized business services coordinator for the county’s office of education, supported GUSD’s position.
“The district that would feel the [negative] impact should be the most determinative reporter on that fact,” she said. “And I have full faith in the fiscal analysis for the Glendale Unified School District and their board.”
But there was pushback from transfer proponents such as Scott Tracy, who argued that a surge of additional dwellings in Glendale has increased the assessed valuation of its tax base by $1.65 billion in just the past year. That sum, he said, “dwarfed” the entirety of the Sagebrush tax base of $581 million.