La Cañada school board meets over GUSD’s Sagebrush pitch

Members direct staff to seek further negotiations on Sagebrush transfer.

LA_Times_image_of_Sagebrush_by_Steve_Greenberg
La Canada Valley Sun
By: Sara Cardine
November 19, 2014

Still reeling from sticker shock after receiving a $23-million proposal from Glendale Unified for the transfer of Sagebrush students to La Cañada Unified, backers of the move are hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

That was the tenor Tuesday night at a meeting of the LCUSD Governing Board, where members discussed what they see as an untenable offer and shared their optimism that Glendale school officials may still be willing to talk turkey.

Board President Ellen Multari expressed her mystification at how the number on the negotiating table went from $7 million to $23 million.

“We’re so far apart right now we don’t know how to get back closer to a number that we felt we could handle, and we don’t understand what are all the terms that have caused the size of the ask to escalate so dramatically,” she said. “So our goal would to be get back to the table as soon as we could with Glendale to understand both those two points.”

Meanwhile, a group of Sagebrush homeowners — whose petitioning of the La Cañada Flintridge City Council and the school board last year inspired the most recent round of negotiations — is preparing to take their case to the county committee that would rule on the matter if a deal can’t be reached.

Tom Smith, the Sagebrush resident leading the citizens effort, said the group had met earlier that day with Allison Deegan, a business services coordinator with the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization, to learn more about the process and see what next steps should be taken.

Although they are pressing forward, the La Cañada residents said after the discussion they’re hopeful some sort of negotiated settlement might still be worked out between the two districts.

The board agreed.

“We still think this is a great idea,” board member Dan Jeffries said. “We want to see it go forward. We want to find a way to make this work out, but we are mindful of the fact that we have to watch what we’re doing in terms of our fiduciary duties.”

Smith, who shared his gratitude and support for the board in public comment, could not say for sure afterward how much time the citizens group would allow before taking matters into their own hands. But he did say he hopes they will be prepared to act by late January or February if talks break down.

“If Glendale can’t find a way to come off what seems to be a very difficult position, we may have no choice,” Smith said.

The board directed staff to seek whether Glendale school officials would be willing to sit back down at the negotiating table sometime in the near future. Board members expressed an interest in seeing whether a third-party mediator might be used to help both parties reach an amicable conclusion.

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Territory Transfer May Stall Despite Vote by GUSD

Crescenta Valley Weekly
By: Jason Kurosu
November 6, 2014

The Glendale Unified School District board of education voted Tuesday night to approve a proposal for a territory transfer for students living in the Sagebrush area, which, if agreed upon by the La Cañada Unified School District governing board, would begin a six-year transition period of a number of GUSD students into La Cañada’s system.

GUSD’s proposal makes a number of requests of La Cañada’s school district, including reimbursement for the loss of students to LCUSD, the loss of money from Sagebrush taxpayers to pay for Measure K and Measure S bonds and a sharing of special education costs. The Pickens Canyon Lot area, which includes a bridge owned by GUSD and is a regular drop off/pick up area for Mountain Avenue parents, would remain under GUSD ownership.

GUSD officials said in a presentation that the loss of students to La Cañada could, in a “worst case scenario,” contribute to a loss of $16 million in ADA (Average Daily Attendance) money, while assuming a 3% increase in state funding.

“Should 60 students move from the Sagebrush area to La Cañada, that would be the equivalent of $215,850 in year one,” said GUSD Chief Financial and Business Officer Eva Lueck to illustrate their position. Lueck said the money requested to pay back bonds would not include $70 million issued this summer for Measure S bonds.

Opponents to GUSD’s proposal contend that the situation
GUSD is facing is not as dire as the board is presenting. Several Sagebrush residents attended GUSD’s meeting. Nick Karapetian, who has twins attending Mountain Avenue Elementary, emphasized “perspective” when viewing the issue, arguing that GUSD has spent too much time and effort focusing on 1% of their overall student population.

“This district, which is a wonderful district, has 27,000 students to educate and $250 million to deal with annually. We make up maybe $3 million if all the kids left,” said Karapetian. “If the board and the public don’t realize the amount of scrutiny this board has put on 1% over the last 14 months versus what it needs to also address in 99% of the budget and what it does for its students, then they’ve been misled.”

Karapetian also circulated a letter to the members of the GUSD board of education prior to the meeting requesting that the GUSD board hold off on a vote regarding Sagebrush.

The letter states, “This issue impacts less than 2% of its nearly $250 million annual budget, but has eaten up countless hours of GUSD board and staff time, has required families to attend endless meetings where they are given inconsistent and ever-changing information, and has now culminated with a proposal to vote on a unilateral offer that GUSD likely knows is not a proposal LCUSD can agree with.”

A letter from LCUSD Superintendent Wendy Sinnette to the La Cañada Valley Sun described a negotiated agreement between the two school districts as “not presently achievable.”

“This new position from GUSD raises the total cost to LCUSD of the transfer agreement from approximately $7 million to nearly $17 million. This dramatic increase in the price of the transfer has led LCUSD to the conclusion that it needs to step aside with regard to any future financial settlement discussions.”

GUSD Superintendent Richard Sheehan said he was “disappointed” by the news, but said, “We still have a very good working relationship with La Cañada and plan on maintaining it as we continue to move through this; but as a district, we need to continue our process.”

The proposal will be presented to the La Cañada Unified School District governing board on Nov. 10.

GUSD Board Vice President Christine Walters reiterated the district’s position that GUSD would feel a significant financial impact from students transferring to LCUSD.

“Unfortunately that is how school districts are funded in the state of California. We’re paid for kids,” said Walters. “When we shift our enrollment, it has significant impacts on our budget. I recognize it may seem like a relatively small amount of our budget but when we are running at a deficit like we have been for many years, every million dollars counts.”

GUSD board President Greg Krikorian said, “We [would] love to help the families and residents of Sagebrush to have their wish and maybe go to La Cañada Unified, but [what] we’re defining now protects us and keeps our tax dollars whole. We still have a responsibility to our residents. We’re setting a parameter for what protects our district. This keeps our district financially responsible and solvent.”

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La Cañada Unified reacts to Sagebrush proposal

School officials call $23-million asking price for territory transfer too high.

Glendale News Press
By: Kelly Corrigan
November 5, 2014

In response to the Glendale Unified school board approving a proposal to transfer the Sagebrush territory Tuesday night — at a potential $23-million cost to La Cañada Unified — La Cañada school officials said the dollar estimates far exceed what they could pay and hope for more talks with their Glendale counterparts.

La Cañada Unified Supt. Wendy Sinnette said school board members plan to discuss Glendale’s proposal during their Nov. 18 meeting, although as it stands now, the asking-price estimate represents “a financial commitment far in excess than we could reasonably take on.”

The proposal asks La Cañada to pay $6.8 million in debt connected to two Glendale school bonds over 23 years and $16 million over 12 years in expected reductions in state funding due to decreased enrollment.

“You cannot even look at those numbers and figure out a way to finance that proposition,” Sinnette said, adding that she would support school officials from both districts meeting face-to-face for more discussions.

“Whether it yields any outcome, I don’t know,” she added. “It would still show good-faith discussion… We don’t plan to do anything formal until we have a discussion at our next regularly scheduled board meeting.”

La Cañada Unified school board President Ellen Multari said Glendale’s estimated asking price is too much for her school district to afford, as it already spends more than it receives from the state on its students.

“It would be imprudent of us to make that kind of a deal that limits our means to educate our students,” she said.

Multari said she hopes school officials from both districts will come together to discuss the figures and strive to secure a negotiated agreement, something she says is in the best interest of students and families.

“We need to get back to the table,” Multari said. “There needs to be better understanding of where these decision points are coming from.”

Glendale school officials voted 4-0 in favor of the proposal following public comments on both sides of the issue. Board member Sandy Russell, a Sagebrush resident, abstained under the direction of Glendale Unified’s attorneys, who cited a potential conflict of interest.

The plan assumes a 3% increase in state per-pupil funding annually and asks for half of the compensation that Glendale officials calculate would have been paid by the state to serve the Sagebrush students — a total of about $32 million.

La Cañada resident Craig Mazin said the Glendale board’s proposal was “neither fair nor reasonable.”

“They’re trying to maneuver it so we in La Cañada look like the bad guys — the ones who won’t go along to get along… it’s way too late for that,” he said.

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Op-Ed: Dousing some burning Sagebrush questions

By Scott Tracy
Glendale News Press/La Canada Valley Sun
November 3, 2014

In response to the column that ran Nov. 1, “Start the Presses: A case of Sagebrush Burning” by Dan Evans, please consider the following:

Property values

In 1992, the L.A. County Committee on School District Organization affirmed that “the proposed organization is not primarily designed to result in a significant increase in property values causing financial advantage to [Sagebrush] property owners.”

At that time, county committee staff concluded that while “it is possible that some registered voters who signed the petition may have been influenced by this possibility, it does not appear that the petition was primarily designed for this purpose.”

The Glendale Unified School District appealed to the county committee stating that a “financial gain which averages 22% per household is presumptively a primary motivation.” In response, the La Cañada petitioners cited the difference in home prices between the two comparison areas as being due to large lot sizes, which produced misleading price-per-foot comparisons. The county committee denied GUSD’s appeal.

GUSD appealed to the California State Board of Education. The state board’s staff findings: “There is no evidence of any intent to transfer territory to increase property values.”

GUSD has never prevailed on this issue and there is no reason to believe they would do so today.

LCUSD’s parcel tax

Evans ignored the senior exemption and the contiguous parcel exemption in his calculations. More importantly, La Cañada Unified School District is legally restricted on how its parcel tax revenues can be allocated; payments to GUSD would be disallowed.

GUSD’s lost revenue

LCUSD is revenue neutral regarding the territory transfer. LCUSD schools are at capacity and existing permit students cannot be displaced. Therefore, LCUSD would enroll one less permit student with each transferred student from Sagebrush. LCUSD would receive no additional state revenue from the transfer of Sagebrush students as its enrollment wouldn’t increase.

In 2013, both districts engaged a leading consultant to determine the percentage of lost revenue to GUSD for transferred students. The consultant concluded that GUSD would lose 20% (not 50%) of its state revenues per transferred student after factoring in lower costs for educating students. Basically, fewer students mean fewer teachers and staff.

Finally, there is a major disconnect between GUSD’s proposed $10-million-plus reimbursement for transferred students versus zero reimbursement if GUSD’s preferred solution of a permanent open-enrollment agreement were to be implemented.

Bonds

GUSD has proposed $6.8 million of property tax payments over 26 years. Educational code is clear on this issue. If no “property” changes hands, no allocation of bonds occurs. Education code is definitive — without a negotiated agreement, there would be zero property tax payments from LCUSD taxpayers to GUSD since GUSD is retaining ownership of the Ocean View lot.

There are many reasons for GUSD to pursue a negotiated agreement including 1) avoiding significant legal expenses, staff time and potential litigation; 2) establishing a mutually beneficial student phase-in process; 3) considering a longer-term “permissive agreement” allowing family choice of school districts; 4) receiving some negotiated allocation of bond payments; 5) receiving some negotiated reimbursement for lost revenue related to transferred students; 6) retaining ownership of its Ocean View lot; and 7) eliminating the risk of uncertain outcomes from the County Committee process.

Rhetoric aside, if both districts want a negotiated agreement, it is imperative that the parties return to the negotiating table, meet face-to-face and finalize a deal.


SCOTT TRACY is a former member and president of the La Cañada Unified School District.

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