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State Backs School District Secession Bid

Panel OKs a local vote on a neighborhood's proposal to split from Centinela Valley.

September 10, 2004|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

The state Board of Education handed a key victory to leaders in a small South Bay elementary school district Thursday by authorizing a local vote on their effort to split from the Centinela Valley Union High School District.

The board's vote, unanimous except for one abstention, gives voters in the 2,000-student Wiseburn School District, just south of Los Angeles International Airport, the final say in whether to add a high school to their strong-performing system, which spans kindergarten through eighth grade.

"This means we can provide our children with a better opportunity," John R. Peterson, one of the leaders of the secession campaign, said shortly after the board's vote.

The election will be held in March, and, if voters approve the measure, officials expect to open a high school for Wiseburn no later than fall, 2006. Officials said they could start with a campus currently leased to a youth soccer organization and decide later whether to build a facility.

The racially diverse district includes the Holly Glen neighborhood in western Hawthorne and the unincorporated communities of Del Aire and Wiseburn.

The vote disappointed Centinela Valley officials, who had argued that residents of the entire high school district, not just the Wiseburn portion, should be allowed to cast ballots. The high school district is made up of three other elementary systems in addition to Wiseburn -- Hawthorne, Lawndale and Lennox.

"I'm very discouraged," Centinela Valley Supt. Cheryl M. White said, noting that Wiseburn provides a large chunk of the tax base for the entire high school district. Its departure would slice deeply into the remaining district's ability to pass bond measures for repairing campuses and building schools.

Wiseburn leaders said they were tired of waiting for major achievement gains in the 7,500-student Centinela Valley district, which, though improving, still lags state and county averages on the California testing system. Wiseburn's four small schools test well above the average.

Both sides sent contingents to Sacramento to argue their positions at Thursday's meeting. In the end, the board followed the Department of Education staff's recommendation to allow the election and to limit it to Wiseburn voters.

A crucial factor in limiting the voting to within the Wiseburn district was the secession leaders' promise that their district's property owners would continue paying their share of a $59-million bond measure passed in 2000, even though the newly reconfigured district would take none of the schools or other buildings belonging to Centinela Valley.

Both sides agree that limiting the election to Wiseburn district voters strongly enhances the proposal's chances at the ballot box. But getting an election, even one with favorably drawn boundaries, does not guarantee success.

In the South Bay city of Carson, backers of a drive to secede from the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District won state permission for a local vote. But, underfunded and poorly organized, they saw their measure trounced in November 2001 when United Teachers Los Angeles bankrolled a well-run campaign against it.

In the Wiseburn case, the high school district's teachers are expected to fight the split, while Wiseburn teachers are in favor of it.

For Peterson and other leaders in the secession drive, Thursday's vote marked one of the final hurdles in a three-year campaign to bring the issue to voters.

"It took a lot of time away from my marriage and my kids," Peterson said as he and other leaders prepared to take some Wiseburn students on a post-vote tour of the Capitol. "I'm just grateful my wife has been so supportive -- and that I'm still married to her."

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