Two sides of the same coin

Factions fight over struggling petition drives to form an Altadena school district

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 1/24/2008

As the youngest person ever elected to the Altadena Town Council, I felt I had an obligation to help my unincorporated community have a say in decisions that affect its children.

Frankly, Altadena public schools have always gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to decisions made by the Pasadena Unified School District. And very few people were doing anything to improve the situation until I came along.

I believe that’s why I received the unanimous support of the Town Council to reconstitute that 16-member advisory body’s Education Committee shortly before Christmas 2005 — ironically the same night that the PUSD Board of Education voted to close four elementary schools, three in Altadena.

The original purpose for my committee, to quote its chartering document, was to “explore the desirability and possibility of recommending that the Town Council start a petition process to secede from PUSD,” creating an Altadena Unified School District.

That sounds simple enough. But today the drive to form a new district is anything but easy, with the secession effort now split between two camps and virtually no further ahead today than it was when it started more than two years ago.

As chairman of the Education Committee, and later as a regular member, I personally drafted several resolutions outlining what the Altadena community wanted for its schools and surplus properties, which was to keep them intact for future educational uses, as opposed to leasing or selling the properties to the highest bidder. These resolutions represented the general consensus of the community and received unanimous support from both the Education Committee and the Town Council.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who represents Altadena, also sent letters to PUSD supporting our efforts. But, as usual, the community’s wants and needs were ignored by the school board.

The proof of that is in their voting record, such as the one to close the four elementary schools. The same was true about the appointment of members to a special board formed to decide the fate of the district’s recently designated surplus properties.

Less than three weeks after the creation of my committee, three Altadena residents — Bruce Wasson, Maurice Morse and Shirlee Smith, with the help of lawyer and longtime schools watchdog Rene Amy — filed a petition with the county to get a secession movement under way. They became the three chief petitioners. However, Morse, a retired PUSD teacher, and Smith, a newspaper columnist and parent, have both publicly stated that they want to be attached to the petition in name only, and want nothing to do with day-to-day operations.

Although it was legal for them to file the petition, it effectively thwarted efforts by the Education Committee to do the same at that time, mainly because Antonovich made it clear that he wanted a single unified petition effort to be conducted.

Throughout 2006 the AUSD Steering Committee, its volunteers and the chief petitioners gathered about 2,500 signatures out of their goal of 7,000, the county’s requirement of 25 percent of registered Altadena voters.

In November of that year, though, signature gathering came to an almost complete standstill, mainly because chief petitioner Wasson decided not to store completed petitions at the agreed-upon safe house, the Altadena Sheriff’s Station. Wasson cut off communication with many volunteers who dedicated that year to helping the AUSD effort, people who collected the majority of signatures.

According to Jerry Rhoads, former Education Committee member and co-founder of the AUSD Steering Committee, one of the main complaints that the excluded volunteers had with Wasson’s petition effort were that it was increasingly becoming less transparent and accountable.

Since the schism in November 2006, 363 additional signatures have been collected, according to Wasson’s Web site,, bringing the total to 2,586 signatures on petitions that have returned with completed affidavits.

At that rate, Altadena will never see a county feasibility study done. Perhaps that is why Rhoads said Wasson called him in November to “make peace” and try again. Rhoads said he told Wasson at that time to make amends with all the volunteers who collected the majority of the signatures, including Town Council member Steve Lamb, Monica Watts, Walter and Bo Olszewski, and myself. But Wasson apparently chose not to do that.

Wasson did not respond to several calls and emails seeking comment. However, in a recent post to the Yahoo email listserv pasadenaschools, Wasson appeared to still support efforts to break from the district.

In the post, commenting on management changes proposed by PUSD Superintendent Edwin Diaz, Wasson also wrote about the AUSD petition drive.

“If you are like this PUSD parent of 13 years, dozens of concerned volunteers, and thousands of Altadena voters who have said they’re done with putting our whole trust in PUSD administrations staffed by those who have never come close to closing the academic achievement gap, then please join the many volunteers in Altadena on Tuesday, February 5 who will be petitioning for a school district organized around the practices that are known to result in closing the academic achievement gap and in bringing all of our students to 100 percent grade-level proficiency in a few short years. If you are interested in helping us on Tuesday, February 5, then please click ‘Get Involved’ at

“And since voter education is so vital to our effort to create a school district that will really close the gap as opposed to just becoming a small version of PUSD in Altadena,” the post continues, “then please also let us know which of our two kickoff celebrations and petitioner’s package
handouts you can attend: 1) Saturday, January 26, from 2-4 p.m., or 2) Sunday, February 3, from 2-4 p.m.”

On April 30, Lamb and I filed a second AUSD petition with the county, with the two of us serving as chief petitioners. We chose not to initiate an extensive signature-gathering campaign at the time because it would have meant starting over from scratch and losing those 2,500 signatures that 
Wasson is apparently holding somewhere.

However, now that it is clear Wasson is continuing his petition movement without making amends with his former volunteers, it is time to move forward with this second AUSD petition effort.

There is no time limit in terms of gathering signatures, as long as each signature is considered valid by the county.

There will be 5,000 signatures left to go if Wasson eventually decides to make up with Lamb, Rhoads and others and rejoin our efforts.

“Those [signatures] are gettable, even if we have to start from scratch, but it will require some work and faith by the community that the AUSD will be a real democratic egalitarian institution,” said Lamb.

It’s important to remember that signing the petition will not automatically result in Altadena seceding from PUSD. The petition only makes the county do a feasibility study which will determine what will happen to PUSD if another district is formed.

If PUSD would be harmed in any way by the formation of an AUSD, the petition would be denied.

So why not sign the petition? What do any of us — Altadena, Pasadena, and especially PUSD — have to lose from a feasibility study? The answer: Nothing.

Such a study would merely provide critical information that the community needs, whether or not an AUSD is formed.

The study would not be a management audit. Rather, it would focus on the fiscal condition of the school district as it relates to the unification of a new district. The study would also provide insights into AUSD’s possible demographics, as well as the number of students expected to attend each of the new district’s schools, which, with the state paying roughly $7,500 a year per student, would be the main source of operating revenue.

After that, a draft report will be presented, community meetings will be held and a vote will be taken by the county Board of Education either to deny the petition or approve it. From there, the proposal will be sent to Sacramento, where the state Board of Education will decide whether to proceed. If it does, either Altadena residents or voters district-wide will vote on the matter in the next general election.

In the end, if things get that far, the matter will come back before Altadenans for the final decision.

To date, the AUSD effort is not formally supported by the Town Council. According to the official request for a county petition for the unification of an AUSD, written by Rhoads, Lamb, and myself, “We believe the unification of the Altadena Unified School District, which would create a district with more than 4,000 students, will provide Altadena students with the highest quality public school education in safe and secure facilities; reduce the distance Altadena students must travel in order to attend a public school; increase the sense of community identity within Altadena; improve the
efficiency and fiscal responsibility of school district management; and increase the voice of Altadenans in the governance of their public schools.

“We believe that this can be accomplished with an equitable distribution of property and facilities, and that unification will not promote racial or ethnic discrimination or segregation or result in any substantial increase in costs to the state. We believe that all other requirements of California Education Code will be met through unification.”

The only way to find out if all these great things are true is through the completion of a county feasibility study.

My only request is for people who support the concept of an AUSD to take seriously both petition efforts and to sign whichever one they believe will be the one to get us the all-important study that is critical to the future academic success of Altadena’s children.