When it comes to breaking away from an established school district, the hurdles can be impossibly high.
But leaders in several small neighborhoods near Los Angeles International Airport believe they have a good shot at bailing out of the embattled Centinela Valley Union High School District. The communities hope instead to open a new high school under the control of their high-performing, kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Wiseburn School District.
The proposal -- which began three years ago with a signature collection drive -- is scheduled for a crucial hearing and vote Thursday by the state Board of Education. The board will decide whether to allow a local election on the issue, the last step in the arduous process of birthing or reshaping a school district.
If the state board approves the proposal, it would go to voters in March, and if they give a thumbs up to the district reorganization, a high school for Wiseburn would probably open in the fall of 2006 or possibly earlier.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 101 words Type of Material: Correction
School district map -- A map in Monday's California section with an article about Wiseburn School District labeled the area bounded by Century Boulevard on the north, the 105 Freeway on the south, La Cienega Boulevard on the west and Prairie Avenue on the east as Inglewood. Most of that area is in the community of Lennox. Also, an area south of 138th Street -- between El Segundo Boulevard and Rosecrans Avenue -- and east of the 405 Freeway, was shown as being in the Wiseburn School District. It is part of the Lawndale School District. The correct map is below.
The Wiseburn district includes Holly Glen in Hawthorne and the unincorporated communities of Wiseburn and Del Aire, just south of the airport.
"We want safe schools, schools with strong academics, and a district that is fiscally responsible and responsive to parents," said John R. Peterson, a secession campaign leader. "This is what makes sense for our kids and our community."
Officials of the Centinela Valley Union High School District strongly disagree and say they will continue to press their case with the state board. They want the board to kill the Wiseburn proposal by refusing to send it to voters. But if there is to be an election, they argue, voters throughout the high school district should be included, not just those in the Wiseburn district, as Wiseburn leaders want.
"This is going to have an impact on all of us, so everybody should have the chance to vote," said Cheryl M. White, superintendent of Centinela Valley. Four elementary districts -- Hawthorne, Lawndale, Lennox and Wiseburn -- currently feed into the Centinela Valley district's four high schools.
Wiseburn's exit bid comes at a difficult time for the high school district. Although its test scores have been improving, the district remains below state and county averages. Its students scored 549 (out of a possible 1,000, with county and state averages of 676 and 693, respectively) on the latest Academic Performance Index. Wiseburn students posted a 784. Centinela Valley also was among 18 districts in California that failed for the last two years to make adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
And controversy over how the district spent school-improvement bond money has kept board members from asking voters for another bond measure, which district officials say is needed to complete its overhaul of aging campuses. Parents in the Hawthorne Elementary School District had also launched a bid to leave the high school district, although it stalled during the signature-gathering phase. But many residents of the Hawthorne and Lennox districts have signaled their continuing dissatisfaction with the Centinela Valley district by launching charter high schools as alternatives for their students.
Wiseburn leaders said they considered going the charter school route but concluded a complete break with the high school district made more sense.
The 108-year-old Wiseburn district serves small, tight-knit neighborhoods in western Hawthorne and unincorporated pockets south of the airport. Well-tended single-family homes are interspersed with parks and playing fields. The San Diego Freeway slices through the district, providing access for residents who commute to work. The aerospace and high-tech industries of eastern El Segundo provide a substantial chunk of the tax base for both Wiseburn and the high school district.
Wiseburn's three elementary schools and one middle school, with their high test scores and uncrowded campuses, have long been a draw, and not just to those who live in its neighborhoods. Nearly one-third of its 2,000 students live in other districts and attend Wiseburn schools on transfer permits, a practice officials expect would continue after reorganization.
By the time students reach middle school, however, many families start searching for other high schools.
"One of the first things I heard from parents was that they wanted a high school solution ... a consistent education experience," said Brian Meath, president of the Wiseburn Board of Education, who sends his daughter to Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. "They like what we have here and want it to continue" beyond eighth grade.
State Department of Education officials estimate that the 7,500-student Centinela Valley district would lose about 200 students under the proposal, although the high school district's enrollment would actually increase due to growth elsewhere in the district.