Parents Want to Ditch City's Schools

Times Staff Writer

Cheryl and Gary Cook love nearly everything about Ladera Heights -- its neighborly residents, its gracious, well-tended homes, its safe, quiet streets and its convenient location near LAX and the San Diego Freeway. But their deep affection for the upscale community does not extend to its public schools.

The Cooks and many others in Ladera Heights, an unincorporated, largely residential community of about 8,000, are trying to leave the Inglewood Unified School District and join the adjacent Culver City Unified School District, a smaller system with higher student achievement rates. And, Ladera leaders say, they want schools in a community they think has more in common with their own.

They gathered more than enough signatures to put the territory transfer proposal before the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization, which is scheduled to consider the matter this month.

But Inglewood doesn't want to lose Ladera Heights. Both the school board and the City Council passed resolutions opposing the transfer, and the school district has hired a consultant to press its case before the county committee. Inglewood officials have warned that such a move would have serious financial and other consequences for their district.

At least one school board member has called the proposal racist, even though African Americans form a majority in Ladera Heights.

And Culver City's school board doesn't want Ladera Heights' students.

Facing a contested fall election with a challenger making the Ladera proposal a campaign issue, Culver City school board members also passed a resolution opposing the transfer. They mainly cited a desire to keep district boundaries the same as the city's and said they needed more information about the proposal's effects on enrollment, facilities and traffic.

The first public hearings were rescheduled because there was not enough room to accommodate all the anxious parents and others who turned out. The Inglewood superintendent had sent out an automated phone message, in Spanish and English, to all district parents, urging them to attend and warning that schools could close and teachers could lose their jobs if the transfer were to go through.

"The reaction really surprised us," said Cheryl Cook, one of the leaders in the transfer campaign and stay-at-home mother of Gerald, 11, who attends private school in Culver City. "We were shocked by the emotionalism and all the misinformation" about the fate of district schools, numbers of potential student transfers and other issues.

But USC education professor Priscilla Wohlstetter said school district reorganization attempts often are fraught with emotion because much is at stake, especially for the district that stands to lose students. Lower enrollment translates into less state funding to cover such fixed costs as salaries and school maintenance.

"These are often such clear situations of winners and losers," Wohlstetter said. "The winning district gets the families and the resources, and the losing district" has to make do with less. "There really are no gray areas."

In recent years, several other area communities have battled opposition from school districts they have sought to leave. Carson leaders overwhelmingly lost a November 2001 election to split from the Los Angeles Unified School District in the face of a well-funded, well-organized opposition campaign led by United Teachers Los Angeles. Shortly afterward, the state Board of Education turned down a hard-fought proposal to downsize Los Angeles Unified by carving out two new districts in the San Fernando Valley.

In late 2004, the Centinela Valley Union High School District near Los Angeles International Airport prevailed in a court battle over environmental issues that has delayed the years-long effort of one of its elementary districts -- Wiseburn -- to leave by "unifying" and adding its own high school.

The Ladera Heights proposition is fairly straightforward. The community, defined by its 90056 ZIP Code, would transfer from one district to another. No school property would change hands because all campuses serving Ladera would remain within Inglewood city boundaries. Ladera residents would no longer be required to help pay off Inglewood school bonds but would chip in for Culver City school bonds.

Transfer supporters said the removal of the fewer than 400 Ladera students in the 17,000-student Inglewood district would not have much effect. The 6,500-student Culver City district keeps its seats filled by issuing about 1,000 permits a year to students living outside the district (about 25 live in Ladera), district officials said..

With about 200 to 300 of those permits turning over annually, proponents of the territory transfer say Culver City could easily absorb Ladera students.

But Inglewood officials say the number of transferring students could be much higher because many Ladera students currently attend private schools. Ladera leaders expect that very few of those students would switch to public schools. The Cooks, for example, say they plan to keep Gerald in private school, regardless of what happens.

Under state law, district reshuffling proposals must meet nine criteria, including findings that they would not negatively affect the fiscal status of the districts involved, would not significantly disrupt the educational programs and would not promote racial or ethnic discrimination or segregation.

In a detailed report to the county committee, the Inglewood district contends that the proposal meets only one of the nine criteria. They say, for example, the move would be harmful because it would remove the highest socioeconomic group of its students and create "a 'stigma' on the balance of" Inglewood students.

Such a move also probably would result in lower state achievement test scores at the two schools that would be most affected by the transfer: Frank D. Parent and La Tijera, both enrolling kindergarteners through eighth-graders.

The loss of Ladera Heights students "could create a situation where many of our most promising academically gifted students from upper middle-class families will leave the district, further separating students on the basis of socioeconomic and racial status," the report said.

Further, the transfer proposal ignores the significant gains Inglewood schools have made in recent years in the state's testing and accountability program, according to the report. The district's overall score on the 2004-05 Academic Performance Index was 679 out of a possible 1,000 -- a 32-point improvement from the previous year. Culver City posted an overall score of 763, approaching the state's 800 goal.

Ladera Heights leaders dismiss those arguments -- and the report's contention that their primary motivation is to raise their property values -- as irrelevant and false.

Ronni Cooper, a former Inglewood school board member and current president of the Ladera Heights Civic Assn., said she and her neighbors have tried for years to work with the district and have been opposed.

"All these parents wanted something better for their schools. They tried and they tried, and then they gave up," Cooper said. Now, families are looking to Culver City for "a viable public school option," she said.

Gerald Riberio, a mother of three who has been a volunteer and PTA leader at Parent Elementary for more than 16 years, said she has had "countless meetings with the various principals, superintendents and board members."

She sent her daughters to a private high school but remains vice president of the Parent PTA, even though she no longer has children there.

"My tax dollars are being used by [the district], so it is obvious that the right thing to do is to try to improve the school and the district," Riberio said. "But it's been very frustrating." Now she wants to help her community align with Culver City schools.

"Any good parent wants their children to have the best education possible," she said.

Ladera resident and Inglewood School Board Vice President Johnny J. Young, in a letter to his fellow residents, condemned the transfer proposal as motivated by property values and as "racism at its worst

"I, along with many others, want the best for all children, which is why I have donated my services as a change agent board member while continuing to be active in the [Inglewood district] over the past 32 years," said Young, who would be required to give up his board seat if the transfer went through.

Supporters of switching school districts point out that their property values already are higher than those in Culver City. They also note that Ladera Heights has many African American families, including the Cooks and some of the other strongest proponents of leaving the Inglewood district.

"It's unbelievable to me how they've tried to make it a racial thing," Cook said.

The county committee is scheduled to discuss a staff report on the proposal Jan. 18 and could decide then whether to accept it and call an election.

It could delay a decision if it determines that an environmental study should be done and if the state board makes an exception to its timeline rules for such transfers.

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