County Staff Opposes Sagebrush Transfer as Committee Meeting Looms

The Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization’s staff is recommending the denial of a proposal to transfer the Sagebrush area into the La Cañada Unified School District.
The recommendation regarding the territory, which is located in western La Cañada Flintridge but is part of the Glendale Unified School District, was published online earlier this week, ahead of the committee’s meeting scheduled to be held at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 2, in Downey.
“It is appreciable that the chief petitioners and many of the Sagebrush neighborhood community members desire the transfer,” according to the county Office of Education Business Advisory Services report that appeared online Tuesday. “However, [the Glendale district’s] assertions that it would be permanently damaged by the transfer serve the understanding of why all previous petitions were ultimately denied as being against the district’s best interests. Since GUSD has consistently served the residents with interdistrict transfer permits, Sagebrush residents already have access to whichever schools they choose. Thus, staff still recommends that the county committee deny the petition to transfer territory from the GUSD to the LCUSD.”
Last May 3, 2017, the School District Organization’s staff had also urged denial of the petition to transfer. However, the district organization committee ignored that and voted 8-1 for a preliminary approval of the transfer. More than a year later, on Oct. 4, 2018, then Chairman A.J. Willmer said there had been no binding vote despite the preliminary approval, and a new study completed under the California Environmental Quality Act must be taken into account.
The CEQA study, which committee members will vote on this Wednesday before taking up the proposed transfer, determined reassigning the territory would not have significant adverse impacts on the environment with the implementation of mitigation measures. The transfer meets the criteria for a “mitigated negative declaration” under CEQA, according to the study. Staff members don’t take a position on the CEQA, except to say that if the committee accepts the results, a petition review would take place. If the motion to approve the report fails, the commission cannot vote on a transfer proposal. Petitioners could file again, but a new environmental report would have to be commissioned.
When a transfer is proposed, nine conditions must be reviewed — for instance, whether an increase in school facility costs would be insignificant, promote sound educational performance and not disrupt the districts’ educational programs — but the committee has been given flexibility to vote however its members want.
In documentation for the item, Sagebrush residents have expressed the wish to be included in the LCUSD rather than the GUSD, which opposes the transfer. The LCUSD district and the city support the residents’ efforts.
In a statement, GUSD superintendent Vivian Ekchian said she is hopeful a decision will be made at the meeting.
“We look forward to bringing closure to this topic and we trust the L.A. County Committee on School District Organization will make a decision that is in the best interest of all students and communities,” she said in a statement. Ekchian will be in attendance for the Oct. 2 meeting, said GUSD communications director Kristine Nam.
GUSD officials, in an Aug. 16 letter noting their opposition to the proposed transfer, said it would cause them “significant” impact with at least $2.7 million in losses from per-pupil funding, charitable contributions and parents as well as a loss of $12 million from “significant bonding capacity.”
The Sagebrush residents group UniteLCF, the chief petitioner behind the transfer, disputed the findings in a Jan. 9 report, stating there is not an offset in per-pupil funding for the expense of no longer educating the transferred students. They added no property or school facilities would be transferred and questioned the projected $12 million loss.
UniteLCF chair Tom Smith said he believes Sagebrush should be transferred because it is part of the LCF community.
“The community of La Cañada, the very fabric of that community, is the schools,” said Smith, who lived in Sagebrush when the latest attempt to redistrict the territory was initiated about six years ago but he has since moved. “So much about civic life all centers around the strong school district they have. What’s frustrating to the residents of Sagebrush is they feel like their priorities, their aspirations and the kind of educational environment for children, those goals and those dreams are far more aligned with La Cañada schools than with Glendale schools.”
LCUSD Superintendent Wendy Sinnette, who will also be at the Oct. 2 meeting, said that Sagebrush families want to be “fully vested members” of the schools and the city and that the district was ready for them. In a previous presentation, Sinnette said a possible territory transfer was first introduced in 1961, resurfaced in 1978 and again in 1991 before the current effort began in July 2013.
“LCUSD has already enrolled more than half of the estimated students within the territory,” Sinnette said in a statement. “We are fully prepared to accept the remaining students seeking to transfer with all related responsibilities and obligations. We have also committed for all existing Sagebrush students and their siblings who wish to remain in GUSD schools if the transfer is finalized, to do so.”
Sinnette said she believes a transfer from GUSD to LCUSD could proceed with minimal negative impact to either district.
“This issue has persisted for more than 50 years and is begging for resolution,” Sinnette said. “Let us take advantage of this opportunity to resolve this matter definitively and allow both districts to focus their scarce resources on providing high-quality education for the more than 30,000 students we serve together. Otherwise, this issue will resurface again and again.”
LCF Mayor Leonard Pieroni also supports the transfer and said schools are an integral part of the community.
“We flourish on the positive and close-working relationship between the city, the school district and our residents,” Pieroni said. “Those strong bonds do not exist between our city and GUSD. This separation prevents families in the Sagebrush area from full participation in those unique bonds that I think are integral to our community. I hope the L.A. County Committee on School District Organization approves the Sagebrush transfer in to LCUSD, bringing unity to a divided community.”

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