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L.A. County committee gives preliminary approval to Sagebrush transfer

Four years after citizens renewed a decades-long effort to transfer the Sagebrush area of La Cañada Flintridge into the La Cañada Unified School District, the area could be stripped from Glendale Unified’s jurisdiction following a decision Wednesday by the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization.

The committee voted to give preliminary approval to a petition to transfer the territory into La Cañada Unified’s boundaries during an hours-long meeting at the Los Angeles County Office of Education in Downey.

Tom Smith, a former Sagebrush resident now living in Chicago, started working with neighbors several years ago to transfer the territory.

“It’s something— our friends — our neighborhood — they’ve been fighting for this for 50 years, and to see us get this much of a step closer … I’m just thrilled for the neighborhood. It’s been a grassroots effort from the very beginning. That’s what’s been so personally rewarding to me, just seeing the neighbors rise up and band together for the community. Fortunately, I had a good team that rallied around me early.”

Following the committee’s approval to transfer the Sagebrush territory, the proposal must now undergo a California Environmental Quality Act study to determine the environmental impacts of the transfer, which could take place sometime next year.

If the environmental findings favor a transfer, the transfer would go to local voters to decide on.

If Glendale school officials decide to appeal the committee’s decision, they would not be able to appeal to the California State Board of Education until the environmental study is complete.

Glendale Unified Supt. Winfred Roberson, Jr. said the financial impact of losing the Sagebrush students could equate to a loss of $2 million annually.

“There was clearly a disregard for the financial impacts or any impacts on the Glendale Unified School District,” Roberson said in response to the committee’s vote. “That was disappointing, to have professional staff that run analysis and presented, I called, a fair assessment. It was a bit disappointing to see the committee completely disregard all of staff’s recommendations.”

Several days before the committee’s meeting, county officials released a report recommending that the committee deny the transfer and cited La Cañada Unified’s inability to abruptly house all of the roughly 300 students that would transfer from Glendale Unified.

But during the meeting, former La Cañada school board member Andrew Blumenfeld said the school district would install eight bungalow classrooms.

The report also referenced two “permanent” impacts to Glendale Unified: the loss of enrollment money the district would endure, and the toll on remaining residents in the district who would pay more in bond rates to make up for the loss of Sagebrush residents.

Glendale and La Cañada school officials submitted conflicting numbers on how many students live in the Sagebrush area, and how many of those students attend La Cañada schools, according to the county’s report.

County officials cited “an averaged number of 387” students who live in the Sagebrush area. The 75 who already attend La Cañada schools “is the best averaged estimate,” according to the report.

La Cañada school officials supported the transfer but suggested the Sagebrush students phase in to La Cañada Unified over a few years, instead of all at once, which cemented the county committee’s staff recommendation to deny the petition.

“This is tantamount to not being able to support the petition since they could not support it on its face,” the report stated.

Despite the recommendation to deny the transfer, the committee voted to approve it during a process that did not seem entirely clear to them.

The nine-member committee proceeded to vote on nine individual conditions, with some members believing that afterwards the committee would vote to approve or deny the petition, as a whole.

The committee decided by a majority vote that each one of the conditions had been met, except for one that had not been met, with regards to the increase of housing costs for La Cañada Unified. In a 7-2 vote on that condition, the committee determined the transfer would result in an increase in school housing costs.

That’s when the committee’s chairperson, Frank Ogaz, reiterated directions from the California State Board of Education about the voting process, saying that the committee had to determine that all nine conditions had to be “substantially met” in order for the petition to be approved as a whole.

“This is new to us all. We were always used to making that final decision,” Ogaz said. “Now, it states if one condition fails, it doesn’t pass. We’re kind of struggling with that.”

For several tense minutes, as it became clear the transfer’s approval hinged on whether or not committee members believed it would result in a significant increase in school housing costs for La Cañada Unified, they decided to vote on that condition again.

The committee pulled their earlier vote and determined the condition had been met after all during a second vote, with 7 ayes, a “no” from Ogaz and an abstention from Joel Peterson, who is a former La Cañada school board member.

Member AJ Willmer said he wanted to approve that condition because La Cañada school officials are “choosing to solve” the housing cost dilemma.

That condition approval led to the committee’s final 8-1 vote, Ogaz dissenting, in which they preliminarily approved the transfer.

Glendale school board member Greg Krikorian said officials will examine “the legalities of this meeting and how it was held,” saying the committee was “all over the place.”

In June 2013, upon the urging of UNITE LCF! led by Smith and others, La Cañada Flintridge City Council passed a resolution supporting the transfer in what was the first step leading to Wednesday’s vote.

La Cañada school officials subsequently passed a similar resolution, and by late 2014, both school districts had attempted negotiating a deal to swap the 385 acres on their own.

That November, the Glendale school board voted on a proposal in which La Cañada Unified would pay Glendale Unified $23 million — $16 million to make up for loss of enrollment funds, and another $6.8 million to cover the costs of Measure K and S bonds.

The price was too steep for La Cañada, and negotiations stalled. Last summer, UNITE LCF! submitted a petition to county officials to vote on the transfer.

In the fall, county officials held two hearings that brought hundreds of people to weigh in on the matter.

Prior to this decade, there have been several attempts to transfer the territory into La Cañada Unified.

The last nearly successful attempt began in November 1991, when the “Sagebrush Committee,” as it was known then, filed a petition with the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization, and the committee approved the transfer in 1992.

But Glendale Unified filed an appeal with the California State Board of Education, which sided with Glendale.

The latest report by the county committee referenced past failed attempts only vaguely, stating that the committee is not “bound by any prior decision,” according to the report.

“The fact remains that a transfer of the petition area has never been approved in its final form by any body with authority to do so,” the report stated.

Scott Tracy, a former La Cañada school board member who has worked for several years in support of the transfer, said the committee’s approval is positive but preliminary.

“It’s a big, important step, but there’s a lot of work to do,” Tracy said.

kelly.corrigan@latimes.com

Twitter: @kellymcorrigan

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