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Both Sides Claim Win in School District Unification Ruling : Education: Judge's decision seems to have invalidated election that created special San Gabriel school zone. The next step is unclear.

March 31, 1994|DEBORAH SULLIVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Only days before San Gabriel residents will vote on a $29.9-million bond measure to build a high school, a Superior Court judge has cast doubt over the fate of the school and its district.

The ruling last week by Los Angeles Judge Diane Wayne has both Alhambra and San Gabriel school officials claiming victory in a lawsuit contesting the validity of San Gabriel's 1992 unification election.

The election created San Gabriel Unified School District from what was formerly an elementary district. Plans to open a high school next year are under way, and a bond issue on the April 12 ballot would fund construction of the school.

But the suit filed by Alhambra school officials charged that the state Board of Education incorrectly certified the 1992 election, which excluded Alhambra voters. As a result, Alhambra school officials said, the election is invalid and the San Gabriel Unified School District does not legitimately exist.

The order issued March 22 by Wayne leaves that open to dispute, and both sides believe the uncertain wording vindicates their position.

"The judge did not set aside the school district called San Gabriel Unified School District," San Gabriel Supt. Gary Goodson said.

"We believe the decision essentially invalidates the election," said Mia Montpas, attorney for Alhambra Unified. "If the election is invalid there is no longer a San Gabriel Unified School District."

Wayne's clerk said, "It appears that it sets aside the election, but it does not say on its face."

In her ruling, Wayne said the reorganization would not result in racial or ethnic discrimination or segregation, nor would it disrupt educational programs.

However, she wrote, its racial and financial impacts, including the loss of both per-student funding and an adult school facility, would be of great concern to Alhambra voters. Since their interests were at stake, she said, their exclusion from the election violated a constitutional right to equal protection.

Wayne's decision was modeled on a case in which a state court ruled that Fullerton High School District residents had the right to vote on the secession of Yorba Linda from the district.

But unlike the Fullerton case, which was decided before an election, the Alhambra lawsuit challenged an election that occurred two years ago.

Goodson, the San Gabriel superintendent, said, "We're duly recognized by the state treasurer, L.A. County, and Sacramento. We've entered into contracts with teachers, spent money on modernization. There's a whole lot of business that's been done in the name of San Gabriel Unified School District. You can't just unwind all that."

Roger Wolfertz, an attorney for the state Board of Education, said that while Wayne's decision appears to invalidate the 1992 election, it is not clear what that will mean for the San Gabriel district or the pending bond measure.

The ruling throws into question not only the existing district but its plans for expansion. The district has hired a high school principal and teachers and has registered students for fall.

They will attend class at what is now Jefferson Intermediate and the bond issue, if approved, would fund construction of the new Gabrielino High School.

Based on Wayne's ruling, Alhambra officials will draft a court order for her signature and Montpas said she expects to file it by Friday. Ultimately, she added, Alhambra officials hope to reverse the election, return San Gabriel to an elementary district and ban San Gabriel from operating as a unified district pending any appeals process.

But Dan Mooney, who would become principal of Gabrielino High School, said the San Gabriel district will proceed with its current plans.

"Until there's a final decision, we are unified and must provide, according to the law, a high school education program for our ninth- through 12th-graders," Mooney said.

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