As school bells ring in the start of another year of reading, writing and arithmetic, the Pasadena Unified School District is dealing with a unique set of challenges unlike any other it’s faced.

Last month, the district was set to take action on outgoing PUSD Superintendent Percy Clark’s contract, a move that could see Clark replaced by an interim superintendent. That largely political situation, along with continuously declining student enrollment, a budget crisis that forced the district to shutter four school sites, with more closures likely, guarantees that whoever inherits the mantle of leadership from Clark will have myriad issues to deal with almost immediately upon taking charge of the PUSD.

Recently, the district has had to deal with a City Council that not only wants to get more involved, but also has begun questioning the style of district management and how board members are elected.

Things got so crazy that Clark himself even tried to leave the district in March and was one of the five finalists for the top schools job in Cleveland before being forced to withdraw his candidacy after officials there learned of a number of unsavory incidents that occurred during his tenure as superintendent in Lawrence Township, Ind.

Clark himself admits that this past year has been filled with so much turmoil that he was surprised when the recently released results of the California Standards Test showed dramatic improvement.

But while Clark and other district officials have spoken publicly about these events, they have had very little to say about one issue that could cause more turmoil than all of the others combined: Altadena seceding from the PUSD.

The Weekly first reported in December 2005 that unhappy Altadena residents want to see the 10 public schools located in their community placed in a separate school district. Residents there have been collecting signatures since March, after the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) approved maps of the proposed district and the language of the petition that is being passed around.

According to LACOE, 6,291 Altadena residents, or roughly 25 percent of the 25,163 registered voters in Altadena, must sign the petition before the county Registrar-Recorder’s Office will review the signatures and the proposed petition. As in most signature-gathering efforts, a citizens’ committee established a higher goal, 7,000 signatures, to allow for disqualifications.

So far, petitioners have collected almost 30 percent of the needed signatures and expect to complete the process by November.

According to the map of the proposed district and other documents filed with LACOE, the new district would include about 8,500 students and be governed by a five-person board. The district would be bound by Washington Boulevard to the south, the edge of the La Cañada School District to the west, extend into the Angeles Crest Forest to the north, and just beyond Eaton Canyon to the east.

Secession talks began after the PUSD Board of Education voted unanimously to shutter four schools. Three of those sites — Noyes, Linda Vista and Edison elementary schools — are located amidst some of Altadena’s choicest real estate. The decision to close those schools left area residents feeling like the district cared little about their concerns.

“I felt betrayed because we had been told last June that they were going to keep the schools open and if they were going to close them they would have a meeting with the parents and the staff. We never received that,” said Deborah Ann Francis, a former parent volunteer at Noyes who has one child in the district. “Then we were told we would be given an opportunity to speak at the board and we still have not been contacted.”

Another way

In the minds of many, Altadena has always been paired with Pasadena. Even its name, which at one point was thought to mean “Upper Eden,” actually translates to “Upper Pasadena,” according to “Altadena — Between Wilderness and City,” by Michele Zack, the community’s unofficial historian.

But many residents in the 8.7-square-mile unincorporated county area resent the connection and are quick to point out that Altadena is not part of Pasadena. Residents have voted down more than a dozen annex attempts by Pasadena to swallow up the community.

In the last school board election, Pasadena resident Scott Phelps defeated Sierra Madre resident and incumbent Susan Kane in a runoff after Altadena resident Gene Stevenson split the vote.

But Phelps’ victory indirectly ended geographic diversity on the board. None of the members of the current seven-member board live in Altadena or Sierra Madre and, according to some members of the Altadena Town Council, that’s a big problem.

“What we’re doing is a lot like that movie ‘Braveheart,’” said Walt Olszewski, who was recently elected to the 15-member Town Council, which has no spending or decision-making authority but advises the Board of Supervisors.

“All we want is freedom. There is no one on the school board from Altadena. We are not represented. So, in a sense, what we have is the reason America became America. We have no representation with our taxation. That’s really the issue.”

Over the past several years, PUSD officials have met with the residents in Altadena only two times. The last meeting was to

be with LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and Clark, who was supposed to explain the school closures. But days before the meeting, Clark decided to attend a tree-planting ceremony at an elementary school instead and sent a management team in his place to face the wrath of the angry Altadenans.

“I think an Altadena district is long overdue,” said Stevenson, who said he wants to be involved if a new district is formed. “What I see is that we have a leadership issue in the district. One of the things that points to it is that we have so much intellectual talent in Altadena, Pasadena and Sierra Madre [yet] we can’t form an infrastructure that can come up with solutions that are facing this district.”

One of the problems that district officials are struggling with is falling enrollment. This year district enrollment slipped below 20,000 students for the first time since a judge ordered the district to implement busing back in 1969. Many blame the declining enrollment on housing costs, or lowering birth rates.

Last year then-district spokesperson Janet Pope Givens told the Weekly that there will likely be more school closures this year.

One pro-AUSD teacher who works for the PUSD and did not wish to be named because of fears that the district will retaliate against her, said she thought parents of students in private school might be enticed back into public schools by a new district in Altadena.

“I think some of those people who have left the district would be willing to give us a look,” the teacher said. “Most people who don’t send their kids to school in Pasadena see some of the dysfunction. They go around and look at different schools and they are looking for certain things. If they don’t see it they don’t think their child is going to get a whole education in every area, like the arts and the sciences, so they’re not interested. That’s what’s missing in Pasadena; we don’t give kids a whole education. It’s not enough to just do Open Court and Saxon Math. You have to stress everything. I don’t think a district in Altadena will be as dysfunctional.”

Save our schools

Steve Lamb sips on a coffee at the Coffee Gallery Backstage. Located down the street from Eliot Middle School, the site of the last battle between Altadena residents and the district after PUSD officials proposed the site be turned into a continuation school for problem students, the Coffee Gallery is one of a handful of places where folks gather to share news and discuss local politics.

The school closures and even the idea of placing continuation schools at Noyes and Eliot were widely considered slaps in the faces of Altadena residents, Lamb said.

“They closed these schools because the sites are in Altadena,” said Lamb, a longtime Town Council member. “And that’s because they have a long-range plan to sell off the sites for housing. That plan existed in the ’80s when I was on the [Town Council’s] Strategic Planning Committee, and they talked about it openly then.”

The three Altadena sites are on prime real estate. The 7.3-acre Noyes campus, for instance, sits on seven acres of land that is easily worth several million dollars. However, Board of Education member Bill Bibbiani denies there are plans to sell that or any other site.

“There is no plan to sell any sites that I am aware of,” Bibbiani said. “I get tired of conspiracy theorists that say there are. Selling the property does not generate any money we can use. I’d like to figure out a way to reopen those sites.”

But even if there is not a plan to lease or sell the sites for housing, there still has not been a dialogue concerning the sites. One Altadena resident sits on the board-appointed 7-11 committee, which is determining the future use of those sites and considering the possibility of selling them.

But even with all that’s transpired, there still has not been any official open discussion between the Town Council and the school board.

“There is nothing that says they have to consult with us,” said Justin Chapman, former chairman of the council’s education committee. Chapman, a student at Pasadena City College, is also a freelance writer for the Weekly. “It’s disrespectful on some level that they don’t at least have a dialogue with us.”

Past is prologue

The PUSD began after it seceded from the San Pasqual School District in 1878 and eventually would govern schools in Monrovia, Temple City, La Cañada Flintridge, Sierra Madre and Altadena, along with several other unincorporated areas. At that time, Pasadena itself had not yet incorporated into a city.

For nearly 100 years the district remained unchanged. Then in March 1953, Temple City schools seceded to form their own district. Ten years later, La Cañada Flintridge residents followed suit, establishing their own school district, ultimately changing the racial demographics of the PUSD and contributing to a chain of events surrounding school desegregation that influences district decision-making to this day. A year after Temple City left, Monrovia also seceded from the district.

“We have had a colonial structure in the PUSD for over 100 years,” Lamb said. “Everyone else has gotten free. It’s time for us to get free. Pretty much all of them were told that they couldn’t make it. Especially La Cañada , the PUSD board was absolutely convinced that La Cañada would not survive. Altadena is the last part of the empire that has not decolonized itself.”

Altadena resident Jerry Rhoads, who runs the Web site www.AUSDnow.org, admits that during the 100-plus degree weather of the summer signature gathering slowed down.

“It’s hard to collect signatures in 105-degree heat,” he said. “It’s picking up again now.”

After the signatures are collected and authenticated, they will be forwarded to LACOE. From there, public hearings will begin and a feasibility study will be generated.

But after the hearings, there are no guarantees. Once the signatures are verified, the issue will definitely go to LACOE for review and a vote to send it to the state Board of Education in Sacramento. If approved, Sacramento will determine who will vote on the issue.

If the board decides to put the issue before the people, it could be just an issue decided by Altadena residents, or all residents living in the PUSD district.

“We are determined to get it to Sacramento,” said Rhoads. “After that it’s out of our hands.”

But signing the petition will not automatically bring about a separate district.

“It would bring about a county feasibility study,” said Chapman. “Signing the petition only means that we would get more information, and that information could only benefit Altadena, Pasadena and Sierra Madre.”

According to Rhoads, that study could reveal flaws in the way the district is run.

“We have never followed the money in PUSD. [There has never been] a real audit by a true private firm that goes in and figures out where the money is going and does not do the bidding of the board,” Rhoads said.

“If you had that, I think everything that is wrong with this district would come falling out in an avalanche,” he said. “The review done by the LA [County] Office of Education that this petition drive will trigger will not go into the same depth as a Big Five accounting firm audit, but I think it will begin the process of peeling some of that information out. Not only will Altadena end up with a better district, but indirectly Pasadena will also.”

Naturally, the current administration is not happy about the secession efforts. Clark did not return multiple calls for this story.

“I believe it’s far more complicated than the advocates assume,” said Bibbiani, who has called for a thorough management audit of the PUSD multiple times. “I think it is highly unlikely that the state and the county will approve this. Certainly the folks in Altadena are justifiably upset about the school closure process.”

PUSD Board President Prentice Deadrick said the goal of the board is to represent all students, regardless of which city or town they live in.

“The governing body is responsible for representing all children in the district,” said Deadrick. “It is impossible for one person to live in three cities to represent all children in the district. At different times elected school board officials have lived in Altadena and Sierra Madre and hopefully newcomers in the next election may come from those cities. Children in Pasadena attend schools in Altadena and Sierra Madre. Children from those two cities attend schools located in Pasadena. The school facilities in those two cities have been modernized and you will not find evidence of disparity in school facilities in those two cities versus Pasadena.

“What the citizens in all three cities deserve is representation on a board that has equal concern for successful achievement for all students regardless [of] where they live or attend school,” Deadrick continued. “This statement does not really make sense to me unless Altadena just wants Altadena residents going to Altadena schools. If that is the case, the new school district will have to face the daunting task of deciding what schools to close since there are not enough Altadena school-age children to fill all of the schools located in their city.”

“The people who live in Altadena think differently and act differently,” said Olszewski. “It’s a different mindset. Sometimes to protect a tree, you have to trim a tree, but you don’t have to destroy a tree. There is a big difference.”