Cheryl and Gary Cook love nearly everything about Ladera Heights -- its neighborly residents, its gracious, well-tended homes, its safe, quiet streets and its convenient location near LAX and the San Diego Freeway. But their deep affection for the upscale community does not extend to its public schools.
The Cooks and many others in Ladera Heights, an unincorporated, largely residential community of about 8,000, are trying to leave the Inglewood Unified School District and join the adjacent Culver City Unified School District, a smaller system with higher student achievement rates. And, Ladera leaders say, they want schools in a community they think has more in common with their own.
They gathered more than enough signatures to put the territory transfer proposal before the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization, which is scheduled to consider the matter this month.
But Inglewood doesn't want to lose Ladera Heights. Both the school board and the City Council passed resolutions opposing the transfer, and the school district has hired a consultant to press its case before the county committee. Inglewood officials have warned that such a move would have serious financial and other consequences for their district.
At least one school board member has called the proposal racist, even though African Americans form a majority in Ladera Heights.
And Culver City's school board doesn't want Ladera Heights' students.
Facing a contested fall election with a challenger making the Ladera proposal a campaign issue, Culver City school board members also passed a resolution opposing the transfer. They mainly cited a desire to keep district boundaries the same as the city's and said they needed more information about the proposal's effects on enrollment, facilities and traffic.
The first public hearings were rescheduled because there was not enough room to accommodate all the anxious parents and others who turned out. The Inglewood superintendent had sent out an automated phone message, in Spanish and English, to all district parents, urging them to attend and warning that schools could close and teachers could lose their jobs if the transfer were to go through.
"The reaction really surprised us," said Cheryl Cook, one of the leaders in the transfer campaign and stay-at-home mother of Gerald, 11, who attends private school in Culver City. "We were shocked by the emotionalism and all the misinformation" about the fate of district schools, numbers of potential student transfers and other issues.
But USC education professor Priscilla Wohlstetter said school district reorganization attempts often are fraught with emotion because much is at stake, especially for the district that stands to lose students. Lower enrollment translates into less state funding to cover such fixed costs as salaries and school maintenance.
"These are often such clear situations of winners and losers," Wohlstetter said. "The winning district gets the families and the resources, and the losing district" has to make do with less. "There really are no gray areas."
In recent years, several other area communities have battled opposition from school districts they have sought to leave. Carson leaders overwhelmingly lost a November 2001 election to split from the Los Angeles Unified School District in the face of a well-funded, well-organized opposition campaign led by United Teachers Los Angeles. Shortly afterward, the state Board of Education turned down a hard-fought proposal to downsize Los Angeles Unified by carving out two new districts in the San Fernando Valley.
In late 2004, the Centinela Valley Union High School District near Los Angeles International Airport prevailed in a court battle over environmental issues that has delayed the years-long effort of one of its elementary districts -- Wiseburn -- to leave by "unifying" and adding its own high school.
The Ladera Heights proposition is fairly straightforward. The community, defined by its 90056 ZIP Code, would transfer from one district to another. No school property would change hands because all campuses serving Ladera would remain within Inglewood city boundaries. Ladera residents would no longer be required to help pay off Inglewood school bonds but would chip in for Culver City school bonds.
Transfer supporters said the removal of the fewer than 400 Ladera students in the 17,000-student Inglewood district would not have much effect. The 6,500-student Culver City district keeps its seats filled by issuing about 1,000 permits a year to students living outside the district (about 25 live in Ladera), district officials said..
With about 200 to 300 of those permits turning over annually, proponents of the territory transfer say Culver City could easily absorb Ladera students.