The heat of burning Sagebrush


ike a dormant volcano, the long-smoldering Sagebrush issue may be again ready to blow all over Glendale and La Cañada.

Students in the New Hampshire-shaped area within La Cañada city limits attend Glendale schools, a quirk of history, geography and inertia.

Much of the explanation of how this came to be seems to have been lost in the sands of time, but my colleague Carol Cormaci's explanation seems quite plausible.

As Carol tells it, the Sagebrush area, situated at the western edge of La Cañada, is physically separated from the main part of the city. In the 19th century, the few kids of local ranchers would have found it much easier to go down the hill to Glendale schools.

As the larger area grew in last decades of the 19th century, a bridge was built over the Arroyo Seco that linked La Cañada to Pasadena. That meant the kids in La Cañada proper were closer to Pasadena's schools, and traveled there for their high school education (La Cañada had a primary school for the younger set). At this point, people in the Sagebrush area were already used to sending their kiddos to Glendale schools, and just continued to do so.

Additionally, though La Cañada formed its own unified school district in the early 1960s — an elementary school district predated this by several years — the city itself was not incorporated until 1976.

My guess is that there was some type of bond measure in the '60s to pay for La Cañada's high school, a bond people in the Sagebrush — at this point, firmly served by GUSD — may have either refused to pay or were explicitly excluded from. Remember, at that point, La Cañada was unincorporated county land, so parents in the Sagebrush might have thought it unwise to throw in their lot with a district with no city.

If there was grumbling about this arrangement, it did not appear to come to a head until 1991, when a group of parents filed a petition asking for the Sagebrush to be transferred to LCUSD. This sparked a 10-year legal battle, with the California State Board of Education ruling the area should stay with Glendale. Appeals filed after that decision went nowhere.

But this year, a group of Sagebrush residents restarted the issue, getting the La Cañada City Council to approve a resolution supporting the transfer of the area to LCUSD in June. The La Cañada school board followed suit in August.

Now, what is this all about? Residents in the Sagebrush area, as well as La Cañada elected officials, say it's about community cohesiveness and simple logic. Why should a La Cañada resident not be able to attend La Cañada schools?

Glendale officials have no real response here. But their resistance is very understandable: If Sagebrush leaves GUSD, the district stands to lose untold millions in property tax revenue and state funding.

La Cañada officials have agreed to pay $3 million to offset the bond costs and pay fair-market value for some land that would be part of a transfer. Board President Scott Tracy said Glendale officials have also asked for additional money for the loss of state funding that would come from a transfer.

This is because districts receive that funding based on their student population. If GUSD has fewer students, it receives less money. There is a dispute about the number of students involved: La Cañada — and it should be noted, a consultant hired for this specific purpose by both districts — says about 260; Glendale says it could be as many as 400.

Glendale officials have suggested making the Sagebrush an open enrollment area, meaning that parents could choose to send their children to either Glendale or La Cañada schools, though the territory would remain under GUSD's domain.

La Cañada officials really have no response to this, if the issue is really about community cohesiveness. If the kids can go to La Cañada schools, the problem is solved, right?

But it won't fly, because the issue isn't about community or even educational quality. No, folks, this is about cash.

Let me break it down. The GUSD schools that kids in the Sagebrush go to are some of the highest performing — if not the highest — schools in the district. And, as Glendale school board member Mary Boger noted at a recent meeting, Sagebrush students are no more "left out" of the La Cañada community than are students in private schools.

La Cañada officials are primed to put a seven-year, $450 per-year parcel tax on the ballot. If approved, this would bring in more than $3 million annually for the district, if the Sagebrush properties are included. (Such a tax would fail, probably spectacularly, in Glendale, as such taxes generally only work in wealthy communities.)

The Sagebrush area represents about $400,000 of the total, so you can see why La Cañada wants it. The property tax income for GUSD coming from the area amounts to about $210,000 per year, so you can see why Glendale doesn't want to give it up.

And lastly, there's the residents themselves. If the property is transferred to LCUSD, people in the area stand to see their property values jump. According to statistics from the real estate site Redfin, during the last six months, 20 homes were sold in the Sagebrush area at an average price of $927,500.

During the same period, a total of 188 homes were sold in La Cañada as a whole at an average price of $1.25 million. Now, before you go complaining that there are bigger, and therefore more expensive, homes in, say, Flintridge, as opposed to Sagebrush, let's look at the average sale price per square foot: $423 in Sagebrush and $507 in La Cañada as a whole.

For a 2,895 square-foot home, the average size of sold homes during the last six months, this amounts to a sale price $243,180 higher in La Cañada as a whole than in the Sagebrush. That's slightly better than the difference using average sale prices above, which puts Sagebrush sales at $322,500 less than the La Cañada average.

Regardless of how you slice it, homes in the area cost less. Does part of this have to do with its association with GUSD? I imagine some residents think so, but no one is talking about it.

So let's talk about it. I've invited both Glendale and La Cañada school officials to join me in a live online chat next week to discuss this issue. I haven't received confirmation yet, but if and when I do, I'll put a note online.

This is an issue that requires more clarity, not only of the details, but of the motivations, and I want to hear directly from those involved.

As Tracy said recently, "I keep telling our friends in Glendale, it's not going to go away."

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