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Vote for Secession Won't Split Up L.A. Unified

Regulations: Many voters are unaware that creating a new Valley city wouldn't automatically break up the giant school district.

April 29, 2002|DAVID PIERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If voters are asked on the November ballot to decide on San Fernando Valley secession, Vered Samocha says she will vote yes so the region can break away from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The problem is, the Valley cityhood proposal has nothing to do with schools.

"I thought we'd get our own district," Samocha said while picking up her three children at Woodlake Avenue Elementary School in Woodland Hills. "That was my only consideration for voting."

Samocha is not alone. Parents around the Valley confuse the two entirely separate issues of Valley secession and the creation of a new school district, mistakenly thinking that one will lead to the other.

But in the last year, as Valley secession gained momentum, a movement to break up the school district died when the California Board of Education in December rejected a proposal to put the issue on the ballot.

The school district has nothing to do with Valley secession, said L.A. Unified Supt. Roy Romer, noting the state board voted 10 to 0 against putting the school district breakup proposal on the ballot. "It was a very strong vote and that was the right decision," he said.

But, if cityhood is realized, secessionists say schools as well as a separate transit system are the next steps. The clout of a new Valley city, which would be the sixth-largest in the country, may give area residents their best chance for a separate school district, proponents say.

When the school breakup movement began in 1999, city secessionists watched closely, hoping that success with the school district would give their cityhood campaign momentum.

School district secessionists have long complained that L.A. Unified, the nation's second-largest school district with more than 700,000 students, is too big. Some Valley parents oppose their local schools being filled with students from outside their neighborhoods; others say there are too few board members to represent the 222-square-mile Valley area of the district.

But for many, the distinction between the fates of the city and school district is blurred.

"I assumed the school district would go too," said Ken Clay, outside Germain Elementary School in Chatsworth. "If they're going through the trouble to split the city, they should give control of the schools over too."

June Halper of Woodland Hills agreed. "The only reason I'd vote for [secession] is if we can pull away from LAUSD," she said.

Richard Close, chairman of Valley VOTE, the group pushing to split the Valley from Los Angeles, said people are confused because the issues are similar.

"We've seen a tremendous amount of concern about a need to reorganize city government as well as the schools," Close said. If the Valley becomes a separate city, "it's a fair assumption that having a separate school district and transit [system are] not far behind," he said.

Close said Valley VOTE has no intention of misleading voters by associating city secession with school breakup.

But Jeff Daar of the anti-secession group One Los Angeles said he thinks it would work to Valley VOTE's advantage to have parents think a vote for city secession was a vote for school district breakup.

"I expect them to do anything they can to mislead people," Daar said.

Stephanie Carter, who led the failed campaign for a Valley school district, said she worked hard to keep the two issues separate because not all who favor school district breakup are in favor of city secession.

"It seems logical to think that if you have your own city, you would get your own school district," Carter said.

Hollywood separatists confronted similar confusion.

Gene LaPietra, a Hollywood secessionist and president of Hollywood Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, said he made it a point to explain that L.A. Unified would still run Hollywood schools if a city breakup occurred.

"We dealt with that very early on," LaPietra said. "We put fliers together. We had town hall meetings. It was always a question. Now it's never a question."

Forming a new city may not necessarily signal change for the school system. In addition to Los Angeles, L.A. Unified serves 27 other cities, although all are substantially smaller than the proposed Valley city, which would have a population of 1.35 million.

Recent bids in Carson and Lomita to break off from L.A. Unified failed. The issue was on the ballot in Carson in November, but it lost resoundingly after a fierce campaign by the teachers union to defeat it. The last city to successfully break away from L.A. Unified was Torrance in 1948.

State Board of Education member Suzanne Tacheny said a city's size has little to do with the matter.

"The law on what we may consider as a board is very specific," Tacheny said. "We must consider criteria like the effect on education, ethnic distribution, economic impact and how do the facilities divide up with the rest of the city."

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