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Battle Lines Drawn Over School Districts

January 10, 1991|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WALNUT — Sending the children to a private school or moving used to be about the only ways out of an unsatisfactory school system. After all, a school district's neighborhood boundaries seemed as permanent as a mountain range.

But across the San Gabriel Valley, from Pasadena to Walnut, parents have been trying to move those mountains.

Despite a loss at the county level Nov. 7, a Walnut group called UNIFY, United Neighbors Involved for Youth, is continuing its efforts to break away from the Rowland Unified School District. Members say their children belong in the neighboring Walnut Valley Unified School District, with the rest of Walnut.

One Rowland board member, however, accuses them of trying to flee a district that serves a largely Latino area with a gang problem.

UNIFY will appeal to the State Board of Education. The Los Angeles County Committee on School Board Organization turned down the group's request to move out of Rowland, saying the transfer would not improve education for students in either district.

Meanwhile, the transfer process has gone a step further in a tiny slice of the Pasadena Unified School District.

There, 71 homeowners from an unincorporated area south of Pasadena want to switch to San Marino schools. An election in the area is scheduled March 5; voter approval would be the final step there. The Pasadena district is suing to stop the election; a hearing is scheduled for Feb. 14.

In another case, the State Board of Education last June ruled against Sierra Madre petitioners who sought to leave Pasadena schools for Arcadia Unified, which draws students from a smaller, less ethnic and more affluent area.

The concerns of the unhappy Walnut parents typify the elements of a struggle that is becoming more common. Although it is not part of the UNIFY platform, some parents mention such things as test scores--Walnut's are higher than Rowland's--and concerns about crime.

"I don't think it should be the parents' primary responsibility to bring a school district up to any particular level," said Walnut City Councilman William Choctaw, a UNIFY member. "That is the professionals' responsibility, the responsibility of those people employed by the district.

"If you're a parent, your first responsibility is to those children."

Choctaw, a surgeon, and other UNIFY members say all of Walnut should lie within the 12,500-student Walnut Valley district, both to enhance community identity and to make available improved educational and recreational opportunities they say the 19,000-student Rowland district cannot offer.

Administrators in both districts oppose the move. Rowland Unified officials said their district would lose about $2.3 million with the transfer of the 1,800 students in the Walnut area; districts receive state money based on enrollment.

In addition, more than 100 Rowland faculty and staff would either lose their jobs or have to change over to the Walnut district, which has different benefits and pay rates.

As for Walnut Valley, that district's junior highs and high schools are full and are already using hundreds of portable classrooms, Supt. Ronald Hockwalt said. "We can't accommodate that many students," he said. If the transfer is allowed, Oswalt Elementary School in Walnut would become part of the Walnut Valley district, but junior high and high school students would have to attend existing campuses, Hockwalt said.

The Walnut district will probably continue to grow even without the transfer. Since 1979, Walnut's population has increased from about 12,000 to 29,300.

Rowland officials, for their part, have tried to address the petitioners' concerns. "Some of their issues seemed to be legitimate," Deputy Supt. Dick Angarola said, acknowledging a past lack of communication between the district and parents.

UNIFY members said their children have missed out on scholarship opportunities and honors handed out by Walnut service clubs. They said city recreational activities have been coordinated with the Walnut district and not Rowland and that local cable television coverage also overlooked their children.

Since parents raised these complaints, the Rowland district has contacted the local cable station and service clubs about remedies. Also, the city of Walnut has awarded Rowland Unified its next contract for providing recreational services for all of Walnut. The contract takes effect in July; previously, Walnut Valley had the contract.

But UNIFY members remain dissatisfied. "I don't think there's anything short of a transfer that will absolutely cure the problem that we have," spokeswoman Susan Kelley said.

"We have to constantly remind people that we are part of the city," she said. "You don't think of Walnut and the Rowland school district together. Walnut is a small city, all residential, no big shopping malls, no freeways running through it. Why would anyone separate such a small city and cut a tiny chunk out of it?"

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