Judge OKs Carson Vote on Secession From L.A. Unified

Schools: Passage of a measure in the Nov. 6 election could mean the first major defection in more than 50 years. Proponents expect more challenges.


September 8 2001

A Superior Court judge on Friday refused to halt a widely watched Carson election on what is the first major proposed secession from the much-criticized Los Angeles school system to reach voters in more than 50 years.

Judge Dzintra Janavz rejected secession opponents' arguments that there were not enough signatures to qualify the measure for the Nov. 6 ballot in the South Bay city.

"I'm very, very happy there will be an election," Carolyn L. Harris, head of the Carson Unified School District Formation Committee, said outside the downtown Los Angeles courtroom after the ruling. Harris called the lawsuit challenging the election frivolous and said she expected "more of the same" in last-ditch efforts to keep the voters from having their say on whether to leave the Los Angeles Unified School District, with its 700,000-plus students, and set up an independent system for an estimated 21,000 Carson students. Secession opponents--who include the Los Angeles district's politically powerful teachers union--have not ruled out the possibility of filing an appeal. But after Friday's hearing, they said they were now going to concentrate on defeating the proposal, formally labeled Measure D, at the ballot box.

"I'm really disappointed," said longtime Carson resident and L.A. Unified employee Doris J. Wilson, who in July brought the suit along with other individuals and two unions, United Teachers-Los Angeles and the School Employees Union, a local of the Service Employees International Union.

"But we're determined to fight this, and we still might win, especially when [voters] learn the facts," said Wilson, who appeared in court wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with red lettering that read, "Protect Carson Children. Vote No on Measure D." She was joined by half a dozen other secession opponents who wore white T-shirts listing reasons to vote against the schools measure.

At issue was the percentage of signatures required from registered voters within the proposed new district's boundaries. In most secession cases, that number is 25%, but efforts to break away from the Los Angeles system require just 8% of the number who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election, according to state laws.

But the new Carson district also would affect the neighboring Compton Unified School District because it would include small parts of Carson which currently lie within the Compton school boundaries. Therefore, secession opponents argued, the 25% standard should have applied throughout.

The county officials overseeing school district reorganizations, however, gave Carson district organizers the green light on following the 8% standard for the part of the proposed district that fell within L.A. Unified boundaries, as did state education officials. Organizers already had met the 25% requirements in the Compton areas. And, as an attorney for the county pointed out at Friday's hearing, neither the Los Angeles nor the Compton districts objected.

Judge Janavz, while noting there is some ambiguity in the state law, ruled that county and state officials made proper decisions in allowing the measure to go to the ballot. In her four-page ruling, the judge also indicated she was loath to disrupt the looming election. Eighteen candidates already have filed for the five-member board of the proposed district, and county elections officials face a Wednesday deadline for formulating final ballot lists. Noting that the state board approved the election in March, the judge said opponents waited too long to bring their suit.

The school secession drive in Carson is being closely monitored by other communities who want to break away from the massive Los Angeles district. The process of reorganizing school districts in California is lengthy and arduous, requiring approval from county and state officials as well as voters. Efforts to break away from Los Angeles Unified are particularly difficult because of strong opposition from the powerful teachers union and other interest groups.

Although some small parts of the Los Angeles system have been transferred to other districts over the years, there has not been an entire new district formed from the nation's second-largest school system since Torrance departed in 1948.

The ruling was especially heartening to leaders of a drive to fashion two new San Fernando Valley districts that together would take about 200,000 L.A. Unified students.

"This is wonderful news, fantastic! I'm wishing them every success," said Stephanie Carter, a leader of the Valley group Finally Restoring Excellence in Education. The group is expecting a hearing before the State Board of Education late this year, which will decide whether to allow a secession election on its proposal.

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