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.