Tempers flared Wednesday evening in Arcadia, as an overflow crowd of 350 gathered to debate whether Sierra Madre should be allowed to leave the Pasadena school district and join Arcadia.
Although the controversy has raged for several months in Pasadena, some Arcadia residents said that they learned about the issue only last week, when they received flyers announcing a public hearing organized by the Los Angeles County Board on School Reorganization.
Mobilizing quickly, homeowner groups met earlier last week and five of the six associations present voted to oppose the transfer, said Scott Adishian, president of the 600-member Highlands Homeowners Assn.
The county board's two public hearings, held over the past two weeks in Arcadia and Pasadena schools, have brought impassioned pleas from both sides.
"We have not been listened to," said Sierra Madre parent Bart Doyle, one of the secession leaders, at the close of the Oct. 12 hearing at Pasadena High School. "We are not being listened to tonight. We're here because we don't have anywhere else to go. We cannot vote in Pasadena, we cannot change the system."
But some Arcadia residents said that's not their problem. "Arcadia schools are being utilized at an overcrowded level," Adishian told the crowd Wednesday at First Avenue Junior High School auditorium. "The transfer could have a significant adverse impact on the current educational programs."
Speakers also blasted the Arcadia Unified school board. The board has voted to remain neutral on the secession issue but says that its 7,783-student district could absorb the 632 Sierra Madre students who now attend Pasadena public schools.
"There are a lot of people unhappy with the school board for not taking a stand," said Cheryl Palfey, who has one child. "Today it's Sierra Madre, tomorrow, what's next, disgruntled parents from Temple City?"
Arcadia school district officials say it's not true that their schools are overcrowded. This year, enrollment was about 150 students higher than projected, which did lead to some temporary crowding, said Russell Ribb, interim superintendent of Arcadia Unified.
But the district has the option of reopening two elementary schools that it closed in the past 10 years due to dwindling enrollment. Those campuses are now leased to private schools.
In addition, if Sierra Madre transferred to Arcadia, it would bring with it two campuses in Sierra Madre. The Sierra Madre School is part of Pasadena Unified; the second campus is leased to the Maranantha School.
The secession debate centers around a proposal by a group called Sierra Madre Parents for a Better Education, which wants to switch Sierra Madre children from the 22,000-student Pasadena Unified School District to the much smaller, more upscale Arcadia district.
Proponents say they have more in common with affluent Arcadia, their neighbor to the south. Pasadena schools, by contrast, are about 80% minority today and its students score in the bottom third on standardized math and reading aptitude tests.
The transfer is strongly opposed by another Sierra Madre parents' group, called All Children Count, as well as by the Pasadena Unified School District. Pasadena school officials say the loss of Sierra Madre would lower the district's Anglo population by 30% in some schools, require significant redistricting to comply with federally mandated integration levels and cost the district $1.8 million in state funds.
Like other districts statewide, Pasadena receives money based on the number of students enrolled, and the loss would affect existing academic programs, Pasadena educators say.
The debate, which has mounted steadily in recent months, has been fraught with undertones of hostility and racism.
Some who oppose the secession say the issue boils down to one of race and that the mainly white, middle-class community of Sierra Madre doesn't want its children attending school with minority students.
Those who support secession deny the allegation of racism and say that some of their most staunch advocates are minority parents.
"When I send my children to school, I want them to get an education, and they're not getting it at the Pasadena Unified School District," said Sam Misquez, a Latino resident of Sierra Madre with four children.
Misquez and others told the county committee Wednesday that they worry about their children in Pasadena schools, which has had incidents with drug use, gangs and violence.
State education officials say it's not uncommon for groups to attempt to leave one school district and join another.
But a spokeswoman says the board looks closely at whether the proposed switch is an amicable one and would probably deny requests that would significantly affect the racial balance of the schools.
The clapping and loud cheering at the Pasadena hearing led the committee to issue its own plea, for silence.
"I must say you are probably the most difficult group we have ever held a public hearing for, and we've been at this for many years," said Frances D. Thompson, head of the committee.
NEXT STEP * The county committee must make a recommedation to the State Board of Education within 90 days; its next meeting is at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 1 at 9300 Imperial Highway, Downey. The state will probably take another three or four months to issue its decision. If it finds in favor of redistricting, the issue will then go before voters, with election boundaries to be set by the state. Even if the secession drive is successful, there won't be changes until July, 1991.