When it comes to breaking away from an established school district, the hurdles can be impossibly high.
But leaders in several small neighborhoods near Los Angeles International Airport believe they have a good shot at bailing out of the embattled Centinela Valley Union High School District. The communities hope instead to open a new high school under the control of their high-performing, kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Wiseburn School District.
The proposal -- which began three years ago with a signature collection drive -- is scheduled for a crucial hearing and vote Thursday by the state Board of Education. The board will decide whether to allow a local election on the issue, the last step in the arduous process of birthing or reshaping a school district.
If the state board approves the proposal, it would go to voters in March, and if they give a thumbs up to the district reorganization, a high school for Wiseburn would probably open in the fall of 2006 or possibly earlier.
The Wiseburn district includes Holly Glen in Hawthorne and the unincorporated communities of Wiseburn and Del Aire, just south of the airport.
"We want safe schools, schools with strong academics, and a district that is fiscally responsible and responsive to parents," said John R. Peterson, a secession campaign leader. "This is what makes sense for our kids and our community."
Officials of the Centinela Valley Union High School District strongly disagree and say they will continue to press their case with the state board. They want the board to kill the Wiseburn proposal by refusing to send it to voters. But if there is to be an election, they argue, voters throughout the high school district should be included, not just those in the Wiseburn district, as Wiseburn leaders want.
"This is going to have an impact on all of us, so everybody should have the chance to vote," said Cheryl M. White, superintendent of Centinela Valley. Four elementary districts -- Hawthorne, Lawndale, Lennox and Wiseburn -- currently feed into the Centinela Valley district's four high schools.
Wiseburn's exit bid comes at a difficult time for the high school district. Although its test scores have been improving, the district remains below state and county averages. Its students scored 549 (out of a possible 1,000, with county and state averages of 676 and 693, respectively) on the latest Academic Performance Index. Wiseburn students posted a 784. Centinela Valley also was among 18 districts in California that failed for the last two years to make adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
And controversy over how the district spent school-improvement bond money has kept board members from asking voters for another bond measure, which district officials say is needed to complete its overhaul of aging campuses. Parents in the Hawthorne Elementary School District had also launched a bid to leave the high school district, although it stalled during the signature-gathering phase. But many residents of the Hawthorne and Lennox districts have signaled their continuing dissatisfaction with the Centinela Valley district by launching charter high schools as alternatives for their students.
Wiseburn leaders said they considered going the charter school route but concluded a complete break with the high school district made more sense.
The 108-year-old Wiseburn district serves small, tight-knit neighborhoods in western Hawthorne and unincorporated pockets south of the airport. Well-tended single-family homes are interspersed with parks and playing fields. The San Diego Freeway slices through the district, providing access for residents who commute to work. The aerospace and high-tech industries of eastern El Segundo provide a substantial chunk of the tax base for both Wiseburn and the high school district.
Wiseburn's three elementary schools and one middle school, with their high test scores and uncrowded campuses, have long been a draw, and not just to those who live in its neighborhoods. Nearly one-third of its 2,000 students live in other districts and attend Wiseburn schools on transfer permits, a practice officials expect would continue after reorganization.
By the time students reach middle school, however, many families start searching for other high schools.
"One of the first things I heard from parents was that they wanted a high school solution ... a consistent education experience," said Brian Meath, president of the Wiseburn Board of Education, who sends his daughter to Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. "They like what we have here and want it to continue" beyond eighth grade.
State Department of Education officials estimate that the 7,500-student Centinela Valley district would lose about 200 students under the proposal, although the high school district's enrollment would actually increase due to growth elsewhere in the district.
About 52% of Wiseburn students are Latino, 25% white, 12% African American and 9% Asian, with other groups making up the rest. Such diversity, along with the small number of Wiseburn students who enroll in Centinela Valley schools, led county education officials to conclude that the proposed reorganization would increase the minority enrollment in each of the two districts by less than 1%.
Still, Centinela Valley officials say the Wiseburn district's departure would hurt because they would be taking some of the best students and depriving their own youngsters of the opportunity to experience wider diversity.
"The real world is not made up of just gifted students and rich people," said Angelina Moller, vice president of the Centinela Valley board, which has unanimously opposed the bid.
And, both Moller and Supt. White emphasized, the high school district has made many strides in overhauling curriculum, helping freshmen who enter the district with poor skills and boosting teaching.
"Our parents have been waiting too long" for improvement, said Wiseburn Supt. Don Brann, himself a graduate of a Centinela Valley high school. "It's awkward to say we want a divorce, but we've really had enough."
Wiseburn leaders hope they have solved one potential sticking point by agreeing to continue to pay their share of a $59-million high school district facilities bond measure approved in March 2000. Because none of the Centinela Valley's three comprehensive high schools and one continuation school are located within the Wiseburn boundaries, Wiseburn would not take any of the campuses with it. Its property owners would still be on the hook for the bonds, as much as $45 per $100,000 of assessed valuation per year over the life of the bonds, according to a Wiseburn official. Because Wiseburn provides 40% of the high school district's tax base, the bill to pay off the bonds would rise steeply for the remaining part of the high school district if Wiseburn did not continue chipping in.
The California Department of Education staff has recommended that the state board approve the proposal and, with Wiseburn agreeing to continue its bond obligations, to limit the election area to Wiseburn district voters only.
Everyone agrees that this limitation would improve the proposal's chances, but Centinela Valley leaders say they will lobby hard to see that doesn't happen. Even if Wiseburn keeps paying on the current bonds, they say, the high school district's ability to win voter approval for future bond measures would be hampered; with a lower tax base, the bill for each property owner would be higher.
"It's hard to know how strongly voters [in other parts of the high school district] would feel about our leaving," said the Wiseburn board's Meath. "But we're such a small part of the district" in numbers of voters.
If the election were held throughout the high school district, Meath said, "it definitely would be more of an uphill battle for us."