The nearly half-century-old Sagebrush debate raged on at Crescenta Valley High School last week during the second and final public hearing about the most recent proposal for the school territory transfer from Glendale Unified to La Cañada Flintridge Unified.
Members of the Los Angeles County of Education on School District Organization listened to testimony from stakeholders who would be affected by the proposed transfer, soliciting input before the 120-day clock began ticking on its deadline to decide whether to approve the permanent boundary change between the districts. The commitee is expected to make a decision at its Feb. 1 meeting; if they approve the transfer, it will be contingent on a CEQA environmental study, which can take months. Once that is complete, the committee will issue its final ruling.
If approved, the transfer would redraw the school boundaries for the 385-acre area in westernmost La Cañada Flintridge, thereby assigning students who historically have attended Glendale Unified to La Cañada Unified schools.
The committee, which rules on such school district boundary changes, formally accepted a petition Sept. 7, after which it had 60 days to hold two hearings to field comments from stakeholders. Following those hearings, the committee will have as many as 120 days to come to a decision.
On Wednesday, Nov. 2, committee members listened stoically from on-stage in the CVHS auditorium as representatives for both school districts and the citizens committee that launched the petition, and dozens of residents from both districts and the Sagebrush neighborhood., Presented their arguments.
Tom Smith, one of UniteLCF’s chief petitioners, sought to remind the committee of the scope of the potential transfer: the Sagebrush area represents less than 1% of GUSD’s total enrollment and less than 2% of the district by all other metrics, he said.
He also pointed out that GUSD’s own research found overwhelming support for the transfer among Sagebrush residents, citing a 2014 survey in which 43% of the 1,604 registered voters in the area responded — 85% of whom indicated they would “definitely support” a transfer.
GUSD Superintendent Winfred Roberson countered by saying, as he had at the previous hearing on Oct. 26, that his district does not view the student population in the Sagebrush as being insignificant.
He said there are 356 students in the territory, representing $2.7 million in average daily attendance revenue. Losing those students, he said, would bring harm to GUSD — which was one of the ways in which the proposal failed to meet eight of the 10 conditions necessary for the committee to approve the move.
GUSD School Board president Armineh Gharapetian said she saw “clear evidence that the territory transfer will cause tremendous fiscal impact to both school districts.”
She said GUSD would be hindered by the loss of ADA funds and LCUSD by being subjected to increased school housing costs. Roberson suggested that Palm Crest Elementary School would require seven portable classrooms — which he estimated could cost about $1.4 million, in addition to valuable playground space — to house Sagebrush students.
“This equates to millions of dollars to both districts,” Gharapetian said. “The financial impact is a real concern.”
But LCUSD Governing Board member Ellen Multari told the committee that LCUSD already has welcomed more than 100 Sagebrush-area students on permits, without a negative impact to either district. She added that LCUSD has plans for accepting and assigning another 300 students, which would require about $774,000 to cover one-time capital costs.
“We will partner with the citizens’ committee and the city of La Cañada in finding sources necessary to meet the capital demands to enact this transfer,” said Multari, adding that both districts pledged to allow families to continue to pick which district they wanted their children to attend.
“Not only is that the right thing to do,” she said, “but it will reduce the number of transfers.”
Scott Tracy, a former LCUSD Governing Board member, said GUSD would not suffer financially by the transfer because the district is growing.
“Sagebrush is a tiny fraction of the Glendale tax base,” he said, “And it’s expected to drop even further due to the development projects in downtown Glendale sprouting like weeds.”
He said the GUSD tax base increased by $1.6 million last year.
As for losing part of the population responsible for paying back GUSD bonds, Tracy said the math resulted in an additional annual cost of $5.50 — “the price of two Happy Meals.”
Roberson argued that even a small increase would be a problem: “The families in the school district boundaries came together to pass these bonds and it is an unfair shift to the tax burden. To change it is a violation of the trust and the confidence of voters.”
Gharapetian told the committee that she didn’t see a need for the transfer because GUSD had served Sagebrush students well for a century.
“We consider them an integral part of our community,” she said. “Glendale Unified School District has award-winning schools and programs; there’s no compelling educational need for the transfer.”
UniteLCF’s Tom Smith concurred that the decades-long tug-of-war over the territory came down to community, but that it remained an effort at creating improved community cohesion in LCF.
“At the heart of the matter,” he said, “Is community identity and cohesiveness. Social capital has been proven to be a significant contributing factor in higher student success and academic achievement. What makes La Cañada a unique community are the schools.”