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Glendale, La Cañada school boards ponder Sagebrush dispute

Glendale, La Cañada school boards ponder Sagebrush dispute
The following illustration shows the "Sagebrush" region, which falls in Glendale Unified¿s boundaries. Parents who live in the area have fought for decades for the opportunity to enroll their children in La Cañada schools. A group of citizens recently formed to initiate the process once again. (Steve Greenberg / Times Community News)

This story has been corrected. See details below.

Glendale officials are looking into letting parents in the Sagebrush area choose whether to send their children to Jewel City or La Cañada public schools, a move they hope will resolve a decades-old dispute between the districts.

However, two disagreements may derail the whole effort: how many students in the area attend Glendale schools, and how property taxes in the area will be distributed.

La Cañada Unified officials say about 260 Sagebrush students attend Glendale schools; GUSD claims the figure is closer to 400. Also, Glendale officials say property taxes due the district under voter-approved bonds will continue to be collected under an open-enrollment plan, even if parents choose to send their children to La Cañada schools.

"It would be just as though all of the students were coming to Glendale Unified as they are now," said Eva Lueck, chief business and financial officer for Glendale Unified. "There would be no change in how taxes are currently being assessed."

La Cañada school officials, for their part, are looking to put a $450 per-year parcel tax on the March ballot, one that would include all properties within the city limits. Not including the Sagebrush area would bring in approximately $2.7 million. Adding in the area would bring LCUSD an additional $391,000 per year, or nearly $3.1 million.

Additionally, they want the area, which has historically been served by Glendale schools, completely transferred to LCUSD.

One city, two districts

Sagebrush residents have long complained that their unique status unfairly sets them apart, something Glendale school board member Mary Boger said at Tuesday's meeting that she was "stunned" to hear.

"I think of all the children who live in La Cañada who go to private schools. Do they feel equally left out of La Cañada community?" she asked. "The only truly ethical and moral decision to be made here is a quite simple one," Boger added. "We simply create Sagebrush as an open enrollment area."

During a meeting of the La Cañada school board, also Tuesday, a consultant hired by both districts to assess the number of affected students put the number at about 260. GUSD officials, however, say the number could be as high as 400, and say the district could receive as much as $2.6 million less in state funding per year if the students leave.

This does not include the amount GUSD could lose in tax revenue.

Glendale Unified currently receives as much as $46 per assessed $100,000 in property taxes annually to pay for Measure S, a $270 million school bond passed in April 2011. If the Sagebrush area were to be transferred, GUSD would lose about $500 million in assessed value, amounting to 2% of its tax base and about $210,000 in property taxes each year.

Seeking an orderly transfer

La Cañada school board President Scott Tracy said officials are currently negotiating with Glendale officials, hoping to create an orderly system of transfers to La Cañada and a permit process for Sagebrush families wanting to stay put.

He said La Cañada has offered to pay $3 million to offset the loss of bond money raised through the voter-approve Measure S in 2011. In addition, the district offered to pay the fair market value of a lot near Mountain Avenue Elementary, which could be turned into a park.

GUSD stands to lose per-pupil state funding if students are transferred to another district; the larger the number, the larger the loss. Tracy said Glendale school officials asked for "additional remuneration" to compensate for this.

More legal action threatened

If Glendale and La Cañada cannot come to terms, Tracy said La Cañada is prepared to take the matter to the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Reorganization. That was the first step taken by La Cañada residents in 1991 in an unsuccessful, 10-year legal battle to wrest control of the Sagebrush away from Glendale.

"That [compensation] would not be provided if the county committee process were pursued and we were victorious," Tracy said.

Despite the rhetoric, Glendale school board member Greg Krikorian said dialogue between officials has been largely positive.

"My whole concern is the transfer and how we're trying to protect our taxpayers," he said, and added that he hoped officials would avoid a "legal war" over the issue.

The effort to fold the neighborhood into the La Cañada school district was re-ignited this summer by Sagebrush resident Tom Smith, who addressed the Glendale school board Tuesday night and said the transfer would bring cohesiveness to the area.

"Nobody has any concerns whatsoever about the quality of the schools … what seems to be lacking for decades now is the fact that the children and the students who live in this area are now forced to divide their time, their attention, their passions, between their school and their community," he said.

"There is a very strong feeling that it's got to be better for the children," he added.

School board member Christine Walters said she was sympathetic to La Cañada residents' aim for cohesion but was concerned whether other Glendale residents would have to pay back a larger portion of the bond funds Glendale Unified has issued if the transfer occurs.

Open enrollment the solution?

"I'm really struggling with what's fair," Walters said. She hoped officials would agree to allow students to choose to attend either La Cañada schools or Glendale schools.

School board member Armina Gharpetian said Glendale Unified is accountable to repay the bonds that residents within Glendale Unified's boundaries, including the Sagebrush area, agreed to pay.

"I think I completely agree with Ms. Boger and Ms. Walters that open enrollment, if we can do that, is the perfect solution to address this," Gharpetian said.

Parent Lourdes Wang of the Sagebrush area, whose children attend Mountain Avenue and Crescenta Valley High School, voiced her concerns to the Glendale school board Tuesday.

"I do appreciate that my property tax values … would go up if we do become part of La Cañada Unified," she said, but added she is concerned she will have to pay both GUSD and La Cañada taxes.

Glendale Unified Supt. Dick Sheehan said the matter would return to the Glendale school board during its next meeting in early November.

"We're getting to a point where I do believe a decision will be made shortly," he said.

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[For the record: An earlier version of this story indicated that if the Sagebrush transfer took place, the LCUSD would gain Mountain Avenue Elementary School.]

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Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.

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