Parents Launch Campaign to Secede From School District

Times Staff Writer

In 1960, parents in Sierra Madre voted to join the Pasadena Unified School District.

The decision is one that some parents have come to regret.

Nearly 30 years ago, it was an obvious choice: the Pasadena district was considered one of the best in the area and Sierra Madre students had attended Pasadena junior high and high schools, on a contract basis, for years.

But in the last few months, a group of Sierra Madre parents have launched a campaign to secede from the 22,000-student Pasadena Unified School District and send the city’s 680 public school students to Arcadia Unified.


Disastrous Tumble

Supporters of the secession movement, who have formed Sierra Madre Parents for a Better Education, say the Pasadena district has taken a disastrous tumble over the years.

What was once one of the best districts in the area has become one of the worst, they say, pointing to student test scores in the standardized state achievement tests.

Gang activity in the city has increased, and some parents think Pasadena schools are no longer safe. They say they have given up hope that the district has the will or the money to change.


“The district has been promising for years that they’re going to improve,” said Suzanne Levoe, a mother of two who is leading the charge to break away from the Pasadena district. “They haven’t, and for my kids’ benefit, I’m not going to wait any longer.”

On the other side are the Pasadena Unified School District and a parents group called All Children Count.

Exaggerated Fears

Pasadena Unified has authorized $25,000 for an attorney to fight the secession movement, which school board President Anne Pursel called selfish and inspired by exaggerated suburban fears of the city.


Some members of ACC say the motivation behind the secession movement is racist. “They don’t want to go to school with blacks and browns,” said Gloria Giersbach, a Sierra Madre parent who helped found ACC earlier this year. “I’m the last one to say our district is perfect, but if you don’t like something, you work to fix it. You don’t run it down.”

Supporters of breaking away from the Pasadena district say race has nothing to do with their movement.

Either way, the complaints of racism have become a festering perception that exacerbates an already deep division.

Sierra Madre Parents for a Better Education have turned in a secession petition signed by 3,800 of the 6,900 registered voters in the town to a special county committee.


The group’s proposal must be reviewed by county and state education officials. If those officials agree that the proposal has merit, a vote of affected residents, which could include those in Sierra Madre, Pasadena and Altadena, will be scheduled.

But Levoe said she believes that the number of petition signatures, representing about 55% of all voters in the town, shows the strong support behind the movement and she is confident that the town will join the Arcadia district in the fall of 1991.

“We voted ourselves in the PUSD and we should have the right to vote ourselves out,” she said.

Levoe said the idea of seceding from Pasadena Unified has been discussed in Sierra Madre for years. Today, she said, the town has far more in common with its affluent neighbor to the south, Arcadia, than it does with Pasadena.


Sierra Madre, with a population of about 11,000, is a small foothill town that is largely white and middle-class.

The Pasadena Unified School District, on the other hand, is 80% minority, with students coming from some of the poorest and richest neighborhoods in the western San Gabriel Valley.

Low Test Scores

According to state statistics, the Pasadena district’s scores on standardized achievement tests for 12th-graders fall close to the lowest third of all schools in reading and the lowest fourth in math.


Some parents also complain about gang activity and drug use. According to the Pasadena Police Department, there were five assaults with a deadly weapon, three incidents of possession of a weapon and a handful of narcotics arrests at the district’s five middle and high schools in the last school year.

For many parents in Sierra Madre, the much smaller, 7,500-student Arcadia Unified School district poses a tempting alternative.

Standardized test scores of its students are in the top fourth of all schools in reading and the top 10th in math.

In Arcadia, the school district reports no assaults with a deadly weapon, five cases of possession of a weapon, and 14 narcotics arrests at middle and high schools between January 1988 and January 1989.


But Pursel said some parents’ vision of the Pasadena district is unfair and unrealistic.

She conceded the district’s standardized test scores are lower than Arcadia’s, but she said the numbers are only a reflection of the district’s wide range of student abilities and not the quality of education they receive.

Bill Bibbiani, the district’s director of research and testing, added that even if test scores are taken as an indicator of educational quality, test scores of white students from Pasadena High School and Arcadia High School are virtually the same.

As for the safety of students, Pursel said although there are gangs on campus, they are not a widespread problem. Police officials agree, saying there were no gang fights in Pasadena schools last year, although some occurred off campus.


Pursel said if the secession movement succeeds, it could affect the district beyond the loss of 680 Sierra Madre students.

About 500 students from northwest Pasadena are bused across town to the Sierra Madre Elementary School, the only public school in the town. If Sierra Madre dropped out of the district, those students would have to be squeezed into other schools or could require opening another school, she said.

Noreen Diaz, whose children are bused to Sierra Madre Elementary, said her northwest Pasadena neighbors are upset their children would have to be uprooted and sent to another school.

She said she also was concerned the loss of Sierra Madre students would change the ethnic makeup of other schools in the district.


But Pursel said the most damaging possibility has already occurred. The complaints of the Sierra Madre group has damaged the already shaky public perception of the Pasadena district.

“It’s an image problem that ‘s just going to bring a greater flight out of the public school system,” Pursel said. “That’s really bad for Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre.”

Levoe, however, said she believed the secession movement will help the district regardless of the outcome.

“Hopefully, it will make the district sit up and take notice that they are doing something wrong,” she said. “They have to realize that they’re going to have to play a better game.”