When Altadena Almost Seceded from the Pasadena Unified School District

After the Pasadena school district shuttered several high-performing schools in Altadena in 2005, a teenage Altadena Town Council member and a group of Altadena residents launched an unprecedented — and ultimately unsuccessful — campaign to form an Altadena Unified School District

By Justin Chapman, Altadena Historical Society Newsletter, Fall 2022

As the youngest person ever elected to the Altadena Town Council, at age 19, I felt an obligation to help my unincorporated community have a say in decisions that affect its young people. At that time, circa late 2005, the biggest issue facing Altadena was the ongoing closure of multiple high-performing elementary schools by the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) Board of Education due to declining enrollment.

On December 20, 2005, after losing more than 1,000 students and thus $4 million in state funds that year, the school board voted to close four elementary schools, three of which were in Altadena: Noyes, Edison, Allendale, and Pasadena’s Linda Vista. Those schools became “surplus properties” that the school board planned to sell to private interests. The Altadena community’s voice was left out of this process.

In response, I secured the Town Council’s unanimous support that same night, December 20, to found and chair the 16-member advisory body’s Education Committee. I 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.

In creating the Education Committee, the Town Council was supporting an effort to “explore the desirability and possibility” of starting a petition process to have Altadena “secede from PUSD” and create its own school district: the Altadena Unified School District (AUSD), according to the committee’s chartering document that I wrote.

‘Increase the voice of Altadenans’

At a community meeting on January 14, 2006, the Altadena Community Center was packed with 200 outraged parents and residents. Then-PUSD Superintendent Percy Clark, who was no friend of Altadena during his nearly five-year tenure, was supposed to be there to answer for the school closures, but he bailed at the last minute due to a “scheduling conflict” (he decided to plant trees at Jackson Elementary instead). He sent several top PUSD administrators in his stead, including Assistant Superintendents George McKenna and Kathy Duba and school board President Ed Honowitz, who were subsequently berated by the crowd. Percy was eventually forced to resign in disgrace after plagiarizing a guest column for Pasadena Weekly, where I was a contributor. Altadenans were allowed no input on his successor.

The school board formed a special committee to decide the fate of the district’s recently designated surplus properties, with no representation from Altadena. The committee released a report that completely ignored two Town Council resolutions and other input from Altadena residents. Like any community, Altadenans didn’t want decisions made for them without their consultation, input, and participation.

Less than three weeks after the creation of the Town Council’s Education 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 LA County Office of Education (LACOE) on January 13, 2006, to get an AUSD secession movement under way. They became the three chief petitioners and called their group Altadenans for Quality Education. Their motto was “Every Child To And Through College By 2020.”

That essentially precluded the Education Committee from doing the same, had we eventually chosen to pursue that path, because LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who represented Altadena, made it clear that he only wanted one petition effort to be conducted. At least someone was taking action, but in retrospect a Town Council-led campaign may have been a better course of action.

In the letter, the chief petitioners asked county education officials to prepare a petition in order to hold public hearings on the issue. If petitioners could collect signatures from 25 percent of the town’s registered voters (6,875), the office would hold public hearings on the matter and complete a feasibility study before the state Board of Education made a final decision.

“We the undersigned, each a property owner, taxpayer, registered voter, and resident of Altadena, an unincorporated community in Los Angeles County, hereby request your assistance in drafting a petition for the unification of the Altadena Unified School District from the Pasadena Unified School District,” the chief petitioners wrote.

“We believe that 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.”

The letter also called for an equitable distribution of property and facilities. Although the Town Council had explored the idea of forming a separate school district before, most recently in 2000, this was the first time a resident had actually petitioned LACOE to draft such a petition. The Town Council and its Education Committee never ended up formally supporting the AUSD petition.

Falling short

Signing the petition wouldn’t have automatically resulted in Altadena seceding from PUSD. The petition only would have made the LACOE’s Committee on School District Organization (CSDO) do a feasibility study which would’ve determined what would happen to PUSD if another district was formed. If PUSD would be harmed in any way by the formation of an AUSD, the petition would be denied. 

Such a study would have provided critical information for the community, whether or not an AUSD was formed. It would have focused on the fiscal condition of the school district as it related to the unification of a new district and provided 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 $7,500-10,000 a year per student, would have been the main source of operating revenue.

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

Between January 2006 and September 2010, the AUSD petition campaign collected 7,073 signatures, 782 more than the required 6,875. But in-fighting beginning in November 2006 ultimately led to two of the three chief petitioners — Morse and Smith — and several volunteers dropping out of the effort.

On April 30, 2007, fellow Town Council member Steve Lamb and I filed a second AUSD petition with the county, with the two of us serving as chief petitioners. I got re-elected to the Town Council in June but then got accepted into UC Berkeley, so I shortly thereafter resigned and moved to the Bay Area, and we ultimately chose not to initiate an extensive signature-gathering campaign.

On September 23, 2010, Wasson submitted the original AUSD petition to LACOE, according to Daniel Villanueva, assistant director of the division of business advisory services at LACOE and secretary of the CSDO. The county had 30 days to validate the signatures and 60 days to hold a public meeting if the threshold was met.

But during a presentation LACOE gave to the PUSD school board on October 12, 2010, county officials told board members that nearly 25 percent of the signatures — 1,693 of the required 6,875 — were invalid because they did not match current voter registration records. They said signature gathering took too long and some residents had moved away from Altadena. Additionally, some of the signature gathering had taken place in La Cañada, one of the reasons for the schism. The petition fell short with just 5,380 verified signatures. Wasson decided not to pursue more signatures. Altadena’s effort to secede from PUSD was over.

Altadena, Inc.

Fittingly, that same month PUSD announced it was considering closing Loma Alta, Burbank, and Jackson elementary schools, all located in Altadena. They soon took Burbank and Jackson off the table after learning the district would be receiving an additional $5 million in state funds. But the message to Altadena was pretty clear, and in June 2011 they went ahead and closed Burbank and Loma Alta. There are only three PUSD schools left in Altadena today: Altadena Arts Magnet, Jackson STEM Dual Language Magnet Academy, and Eliot Arts Magnet Academy.

Ultimately, the best thing Altadena can do to obtain more representation in not only its school district affairs but also other aspects of community planning may be to incorporate as a city (i.e. secede from LA County). The idea has been on the front pages of local newspapers and on the minds of community leaders for more than a century. And it’s something Altadenans should take into serious consideration once again.

Justin Chapman writes, produces, and hosts a monthly TV news talk show on Pasadena Media's TV channel, called "NewsRap Local with Justin Chapman." The nineteenth episode aired Friday, October 21, 2022. The guests were Ryan Bell of Tenants Together and Paul Little of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, who discussed all things local election (library tax, rent control, new city council members, etc.). Watch the full episode below:

Welcome to Slowjamastan

In one of the world's newest nations, R&B rules, string cheese must be eaten the right way, and Crocs are banned.

By Justin Chapman, Alta Journal, 10/21/2022

There was something about Crocs that really bugged Randy “R Dub!” Williams to his core. A slow jams DJ based in San Diego, Williams felt like someone should outlaw those atrocious shoes, but how? Who would ever listen to the decree of a modest R&B DJ? Eventually, Williams hit upon the solution: start his own independent micronation, name himself a sultan, and take action to protect his citizenry from the scourge of Crocs.

He called this place Slowjamastan.

Read the full story at Alta Journal.


Machu Picchu
Exploring South America

 By Justin Chapman, Culture Honey Magazine, 10/20/2022

A large tortoise with a long neck

Photo by Justin Chapman

As a long-time pet parent to a California desert tortoise (spawned by my love of the Ninja Turtles as a kid) named Stockton (Hunter Thompson’s middle name), I’d always wanted to visit the Galápagos Islands to see the famous giant tortoises there. Scientists believe those ancient animals arrived on the islands about 3 million years ago by “drifting 600 miles from the South American coast on vegetation rafts or on their own” according to the Galápagos Conservancy. Incredible, considering even getting there in this modern age is no small trek.

After my wife Mercedes and I got married, I suggested we honeymoon in South America. We had family friends in Lima, so we planned on Machu Picchu in Peru and the Galápagos in Ecuador.

As it turned out to be a bit of a rough-and-tumble adventure, Mercedes said that that trip did not count as our honeymoon, and that I still owe her a week on a beach in paradise.

Roughin’ it in the Galápagos

It was hot and muggy when we touched down in Guayaquil (pronounced WHY-uh-keel), Ecuador. Early the next morning, we were off to the airport again for our flight to the Galápagos. Just before we landed on Baltra, the gateway to the islands, the flight attendants opened the luggage compartments and fumigated all the bags.

Baltra Island is a small, flat, desert island with weeds, rocks, and a landing strip. We crossed Canal de Itabaca on a ferry to Santa Cruz Island, the biggest and most populous in the Galápagos.

We drove over the highlands, where the desert gave way to lush, misty, tropical jungle. Enormous tortoises lounged close to horses by the side of the road. Eventually we escaped the mist and drove down through small towns where laundry was hanging in the yards, a soccer match was underway at an elementary school, and women shopped at a farmer’s market.

It was raining when we arrived in Cascajo in the middle of the jungle island. Definitely off the beaten path. We didn’t have an address for our Airbnb, so the driver stopped at a small local shop to show the cashier, a 9-year-old girl, a photo of the house and ask her for directions.

Our cottage was octagon-shaped with screen doors and flimsy latches. There was a gap between the tin roof and the walls, so when it rained—which it did a lot—it was loud, and hundreds of centipedes and gnarly spiders crawled through the gap and covered the white walls. There was a dead frog in stagnant water by the toilet. It smelled like mold. The bedsheets were damp. There was no mosquito net, so I was soon covered in bright red mosquito bites, like chicken pox. The water came out of the faucet in a small drip. The toilet wouldn’t flush, so we had to wait a couple hours while the faucet filled a bucket with water.

“Great honeymoon, Justin,” my new wife said.

“What’s a honeymoon?” I said.

Charles Darwin and the fountain of youth

A group of four iguanas on the pavement by the water

Iguanas on Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

In Puerto Ayora, the island’s main town, we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, which had a Jurassic Park-esque vibe. We walked along a pier through mangrove thickets that were covered in thousands of large, multi-colored iguanas. We freed one iguana that was tangled in a rope hanging next to some boats that would surely have drowned soon otherwise.

A large yellow, orange and black iguana resting in front of clear blue water

Iguana on Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

“Yep, we just saved an iguana’s life in the Galápagos today, no big deal,” I said.

We walked past research facilities and an insect containment building to the captive tortoise breeding station. There were about 20 enormous tortoises with huge shells and long necks. So beautiful. Well worth the trek.

Large tortoises herding together around a rocky area surrounded by trees

Tortoises on Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

“Why give Lonesome George such a negative name?” Mercedes pondered. “Why not Hopeful George? It’s all about putting good energy out there.”

Lonesome George, of course, was the 102-year-old Pinta Island tortoise that was thought to be the last of its species. He died in 2012, but just before we arrived on the islands, Yale researchers discovered two more tortoises from the subspecies Chelonoidis niger donfaustoi which had a 90 percent DNA match with George. Scientists began exploring whether they could use this discovery to resurrect George’s species.

We hiked past salt flats to Las Grietas, a beautiful, deep swimming hole surrounded on both sides by steep lava rock cliffs. The crystal clear water felt like the fountain of youth.

We met a Swedish tourist and told him we were going to San Cristobal Island the next day, and he said the ferry over would be the worst boat ride of our lives. He wasn’t wrong.

The boat ride from hell

A taxi was supposed to be ready for us at 6 a.m., but apparently there was some miscommunication as our host hadn’t called for one. We couldn’t miss the boat or we’d miss our only full day on San Cristobal.

We rushed to Puerto Ayora and ran past a crowd of people on the pier. An agricultural inspection agent yelled at us to stop. He asked if we had flowers or other organics then inspected our bags and zip-tied them shut. We pushed our way through the impatient crowd and scored our spots on the Andy, a small, cramped speedboat overflowing with people and luggage.

Seasickness hit Mercedes hard. The boat went as fast as possible and slammed down every other wave or so for the entire two-hour ride, to the point where I thought the boat was going to split open.

Looking nauseous, she got up and struggled her way to the bathroom. She vomited repeatedly as the boat slammed her around. And there was a rat in the bathroom. She tried to leave, but the door was blocked (an Ecuadorian guy on the other side was holding it shut with his foot so it wouldn’t swing open), so she stayed there because it was cooler than in the main cabin. She felt the rat crawl onto her leg and—she claims—nibble on her. She kicked her leg out and the rat went flying across the small room, squealing and then huddling in the corner. Mercedes began pounding on the door and the guy finally let her out.

She stumbled back to her seat next to me, looking absolutely miserable.

“Bathroom…door…rat…” she muttered.

“What?” I asked.

She shook her head and said, “Too hot,” and wandered over to the open-air corner of the boat to the only tiny space available. She slumped in that seat, curled up her legs, and closed her eyes. It turned out nobody sat there because the waves slammed into her face every five seconds. She proceeded to get waterboarded for the remaining hour of the ride.

A sea lion laying on a bench with the words: conservemos lo nuestro on it

Sea lion on San Cristobal Island. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

We immediately liked San Cristobal better than Santa Cruz. The main town, Puerto Baqueriza Moreno, was much friendlier, livelier, and quainter than Puerto Ayora.

After hiking to the other side of the island, we arrived at a steep cliff that overlooked the ocean. We could see iconic Kicker Rock way out in the water, around which hammerhead sharks swim. Below us was a truly stunning emerald green cove called Cerro Tijeretas. A big statue of a man, a tortoise, a sea lion, and an iguana overlooked the cove. It was magnificent snorkeling. Three sea lions were swimming around with us along with schools of silver fish, enormous parrot fish, and black fish with yellow trim.

Back in town, hundreds of sea lions were taking over the town and the beach. One was even napping on a bench. Another aggressive sea lion chased Mercedes on the boardwalk.

30 hours to Lima

We walked back to Cerro Tijeretas to go snorkeling again the next day, but the energy of the cove was completely different. Instead of smooth and calm waters like the day before, it was now choppy and wavy with bad visibility.

We went to the small, quaint island airstrip for our flight back to mainland Ecuador, where we walked up through Las Peñas, a historic barrio that winds up a steep hill. The neighborhood was the center from which the modern city of Guayaquil grew. It consists of 444 stairs to get to the top, with old houses, bars, restaurants, and shops along the way, featuring a panoramic 360-degree view of the city’s large rolling hills sparkling with multi-colored lights from residential neighborhoods.

To get down the coast to Lima, Peru, we took a 30-hour bus ride. Mercedes understandably insisted we book the luxury section, which wasn’t as nice as you might think.

The bus headed south into the Ecuadorian countryside and then northwest Peru, a barren, arid landscape. The desert sands stretched all the way to the ocean, blending in with the beach sand, punctuated by rocky, rolling sand dunes. A presidential election was coming up, so candidates’ names—including the daughter of a former Peruvian dictator—were painted in their campaign colors on any available surface in each town.

The lost city

Green coca leaves in a plastic bag

Coca Leaves. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

From Lima, we were soon drinking coca tea on a small plane to Cusco, Peru, a stunningly gorgeous historic town with hilly, cobblestone streets and open-air markets on train tracks. Coca leaves, coca candy, and other coca products were sold in the airport and just about every other shop in town. Turned out to be very helpful with the intense altitude sickness. It was hard to breathe just standing there doing nothing, let alone walking up and down the city’s winding, steep hills.

Our hostel, Loki, was popular with hip young travelers. It was situated on a steep, winding street with a great view of the city and the mountains. But we barely got any sleep there because a huge party was raging all night in the bar, just a few doors down from our room. And we had to get up early to go to Machu Picchu.

We took a 30-minute taxi through lush canyons to Poroy Station, where we were to board our luxury train to the Lost City. We were greeted with champagne as a traditional Peruvian band played on the boarding platform and dancers in colorful dresses, suits, and hats performed.

Peruvian dancer at train station to Machu Picchu dressed in color traditional outfits

Peruvian dancer at train station to Machu Picchu. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

We boarded the Hiram Bingham train, named after the man who “discovered” Machu Picchu since the Incas left it hundreds of years ago. The blue and yellow train sported elegant wood-paneled walls. The caboose had a beautiful bar and lounge area, an open-air patio at the very back, and comfy chairs.

a small band of three preparing their guitars inside a train heading to Machu Picchu

Train Station to Machu Picchu. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

A band played as waiters served us Pisco sours, Peruvian wine, coca tea, and lomo saltado.

A close up on a pisco sour- a peruvian alcoholic cocktail

Pisco Sour. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

Mercedes cried because it was so nice after everything we’d been through. She ordered an oxygen tank and puffed away on it.

Machu Picchu Pueblo, a bride crossing over a raging river

Machu Picchu Pueblo. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

Once we arrived in Machu Picchu Pueblo, a little town at the base of the mountain range, we boarded a bus that took us on a 30-minute drive and wound its way up the steep cliffside to Machu Picchu. Upon entry there was a small station where we got to stamp our own passports.

A striking photo of the lushous greens of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

It was truly an amazing place. Several huge, sharp mountains jutted up from the valley below. We went exploring through the ancient stone structures and passageways and took in the views. There were little irrigation aqueducts throughout the citadel, visible only when you were right over them. I turned around at one point to find one of the many llamas that wander around staring right at me a foot away.

Back in town we got on the less expensive, less fancy Vistadome train, which promptly broke down, stranding us for two hours. Our taxi driver who was waiting for us—and who had overcharged us—was pissed, but we couldn’t understand what he was saying.

Loki’s bar was jumpin’ with smashed, attractive twentysomethings wearing Santa hats when we got back. We were exhausted, but there was no going to sleep with that noise, so we joined the party. They yelled the Loki chant: “Loki! Loki! Loki! Oi! Oi! Oi!” as they participated in a “Blood Bomb World Cup,” with each person representing a different country to see who could drink the most blood bombs (Red Bull, vodka, and grenadine). The bartender lined up 30 bombs on the bar and lit them on fire with a huge torch as the crowd screamed in delight. The bar itself caught on fire in front of us. The music was ear-splittingly loud. Black lights, neon lights, and disco ball lights flooded the otherwise dark bar.

The next day a fierce lightning and thunder storm hit as soon as we stepped outside. We donned ponchos and waded into the rain over wet cobblestone streets. We ate alpaca burgers and coca lemonade at Papacho’s overlooking the Plaza de Armas. Mercedes got locked in the bathroom for the second time on this trip.

Paragliding over Miraflores

On the last day of our “honeymoon” back in Lima, we walked along the Malecón, a landscaped path along the steep cliffs of Miraflores overlooking the beach, ocean, and Lima islands in the distance.

A person paragliding over Lima Peru

Paragliding Over Lima Peru. Photo by Mercedes Blackehart.

In Lovers Park, which has a big statue of a couple embracing and kissing, we saw paragliders in the air. We strapped up ourselves and shot out past the cliff over the ocean and rose 500 feet in the air. We sailed over Lima stretching out for miles, like a small model city: the tiny cars on the highway, the surfers on the waves, the endless buildings across the Peruvian capital.

At least the “honeymoon” ended on a high (literally and figuratively) note. I’m still on the hook for a week in paradise.

Read the October 2022 issue of Justin Chapman's Newsletter, featuring an invitation to attend a talk Justin's giving this Monday, October 17, at the Altadena Historical Society’s quarterly meeting about Jack Parsons, the rocketry pioneer and occultist whose work helped lead to the founding of JPL, at 7:30 p.m. at the Altadena Community Center, 730 E. Altadena Dr., Altadena, CA 91001. The newsletter also features a preview of the next “NewsRap Local with Justin Chapman” episode, which will be an election special that will air next Friday, October 21, at 5 p.m. PT and feature a discussion between tenants’ rights activist Ryan Bell and Pasadena Chamber of Commerce CEO Paul Little on rent control, special library tax, and other local election issues. The newsletter also features the latest Michelson Philanthropies newsletter, Justin's new podcast with Brad Steele about fatherhood called "Dadding," some recommendations for good reads, news to keep an eye on, and more!

Justin Chapman will give a talk on Jack Parsons--the rocketry pioneer and occultist whose work helped lead to the founding of JPL--at the Altadena Historical Society's quarterly meeting on October 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Altadena Community Center, 730 E. Altadena Dr., Altadena, CA 91001.

Read Justin's 3-part series on Jack Parsons in Pasadena Now below: