A school of our own

The only thing Altadenans have to fear is themselves in the drive to form a new school district

By Justin Chapman 03/01/2007

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The reason I helped create the Altadena Town Council's Education Committee shortly before Christmas 2005 — fittingly enough on the same night that the Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education voted to close four elementary schools, three in Altadena — was to help my community have a say in decisions that affect its children.

The original purpose for this committee was to “explore the desirability and possibility of recommending that the Town Council start a petition process to secede from PUSD,” as it is written in the committee's chartering document. That sounds simple enough. But today, the drive to form a new district is anything but, with the secession effort virtually no further ahead today than it was when it started more than a year ago.

Less than three weeks after the creation of my committee, three Altadena residents — Bruce Wasson, Maurice Morse and Shirlee Smith, with the help of aspiring lawyer and longtime schools watchdog Rene Amy — filed a petition with the county to get the process under way.

Although it was perfectly legal for them to do so, that petition prohibited any efforts by the Education Committee to do the same, mainly because county Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who represents Altadena, made it clear that he only wanted one petition effort to be conducted.

Someone recently asked me if newly hired PUSD Superintendent Edwin Diaz and the election for three open school board seats on Tuesday would take some of the steam out of the AUSD effort. I don't think it will, at least no more than apparent changes of heart by some original supporters already have.

The main concern driving the desire to secede is the lack of Altadena community and Town Council influence, input and representation on both the school board and a special committee formed by the district, the 711 Committee, to decide what to do with the district's recently designated surplus properties, including the three closed schools in Altadena.

Illustrating exactly what I am saying, the 711 Committee's recent report completely ignored two separate Town Council resolutions and other input from Altadena residents.

Another concern is how Diaz was selected to replace outgoing Superintendent Percy Clark, who proved during his nearly five years in power to be no friend of Altadena.

Although Town Council Chairman Ken Balder traveled to Gilroy with Board of Education members Peter Soelter, Scott Phelps and Ed Honowitz, as well as Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard and Sierra Madre Mayor John Buchanan, to interview Diaz, Balder was not authorized to represent the Town Council. He participated solely as an individual, much as I am in writing this story, so Altadena did not have adequate official representation in the selection of Diaz.

Altadena deserves to be listened to, and that's not happening. Like any community, we don't want decisions made for us without our consultation, input and participation.

It's important to remember that signing the petition will not automatically result in Altadena seceding from PUSD. The petition only makes the Los Angeles County Office of Education's (LACOE) Committee on School District Organization (CSDO) do a feasibility study which will determine what will happen to PUSD if another district is formed. If PUSD would be harmed in any way by the formation of an AUSD, the petition would be denied. 

The study would also provide critical information on the AUSD's demographics, as well as the number of students expected to attend each of the new district's schools, which, with the state paying roughly $7,500 a year per student, would generate the revenue needed to operate.

After that, a draft report will be presented, community meetings will be held and a vote will be taken by the county Board of Education either to deny the petition or approve it. From there, the proposal will be sent to Sacramento, where the state Board of Education will decide whether to proceed. If it does, either Altadena residents or voters district-wide will vote on the matter in the next general election. In the end, if things get that far, the matter will come back before Altadenans for the final decision.

The AUSD steering committee, its volunteers and the chief petitioners have gathered roughly 2,500 signatures out of their goal of 7,000, the county's requirement of 25 percent of registered Altadena voters. Since November, though, signature gathering seems to have come to a complete standstill.

One problem is with Wasson, who apparently is not storing completed petitions at the agreed-upon safe house, the Altadena Sheriff's Station. Wasson has apparently cut off communication with many volunteers who dedicated the past year to helping the AUSD effort, people who collected the majority of signatures.

According to fellow Town Council Education Committee and AUSD Steering Committee member Jerry Rhoads, one of the main complaints the excluded volunteers have with Wasson's petition efforts is that it is increasingly becoming less transparent and accountable. In order for this movement to work, it must be a diverse, community-wide effort.

Although I was not involved in the petition process, I was listed as an endorser on the official AUSD Web site www.ausdnow.org that was created by Rhoads. He is one of the people now being ignored by Wasson, who apparently copied Rhoads' Web site onto a new “official” AUSD Web site www.altadenaschools.net and listed a select few endorsers, including me, even though I never gave him permission to do so.

The other two chief petitioners, Morse and Smith, have both publicly stated that they want to be attached to the petition in name only, and want nothing to do with day-to-day operations.

At the Jan. 16 meeting of the Education Committee, Rhoads, speaking for Altadenans for Quality Education, proposed that the committee recommend the Town Council support the petition effort only if the chief petitioners are replaced by elected community leaders.

Rhoads further proposed that if the chief petitioners were not replaced, the Education Committee should support the concept of an Altadena Unified School District as a possible option in the future, but not under the current petition effort led by Wasson.

To date, the AUSD effort is NOT formally supported by either the Town Council or its Education Committee.

According to Daniel Villanueva, LACOE CSDO secretary, a chief petitioner cannot be replaced without his or her consent. I doubt Wasson wants to go anywhere. As for Smith, it's hard to say. In Cortney Fielding's latest Pasadena Star-News story on AUSD, Smith essentially said it doesn't matter whether she's a chief petitioner or not. Morse would be the most likely candidate. In order to be replaced, an original chief petitioner would need to send a letter to Mr. Villanueva with the replacement's name and contact information.

If the original chief petitioners aren't replaced, chances are high that this petition will never be seen by the voters of Altadena.

In my opinion, the best thing for Altadena to do to obtain more representation in not only its school district affairs but also other aspects of community planning is to incorporate. Historically, Altadenans have resisted this idea. But I believe now, as the San Gabriel Valley continues to grow, is the time to localize power, both in the community and in our schools. Incorporation would certainly make an AUSD more feasible.

But for now, a diplomatic move from the school board and the Pasadena City Council to include the Altadena community and Town Council, such as inviting representatives from the Town Council to joint meetings between those two governmental bodies, might restore a little faith in PUSD and at the same time help build a more united community and a better school district for all the children of the foothills.

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