County committee oks North Tustin transfer from Orange Unified to TUSD

By Tina Richards

A petition signed by parents in Panorama Heights asking the Orange County Department of Education to transfer their community from Orange Unified to Tustin Unified School District, was accepted by the County Committee on School District Organization, Sept. 6.

It was the second attempt by Panorama Heights residents to change school districts.  Last year, their petition was rejected because it included only upper Panorama Heights and would create an “island” if separated, and it was deemed to present a financial hardship on OUSD.

This time, parents in lower Panorama Heights also signed the petition, that transfer advocates said had 100 percent support from neighbors with school-age children.  Petitioner Marlene Graham emphasized that this petition represented 458 homes and 846 voters as opposed to 2016’s 248 homes and 386 voters.

To the nines
The county committee voted, 8-1, to accept the petition following a lengthy public hearing that attracted a roomful of Panorama Heights parents, but no one from Orange Unified, save Acting Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Colleen Patterson and Attorney Spencer Covert.  

The meeting began at TUSD headquarters and ended in the boardroom at OUSD.  The dual locations allowed stakeholders from both districts to attend, although  both meeetings had fairly mirror-image audiences. 

To be accepted, a transfer request must meet nine criteria, ranging from enrollment to demographics, educational performance to costs.  If the transfer would have a negative impact on even one of those criteria, it will be denied. Last year, petitioners failed to meet three of the criteria related to the “island” and OUSD’s financial position.  This year, all nine criteria received a majority, but not unanimous, “yes” vote.

Committee member Kathy Moffat, who is also on the OUSD Board of Trustees, voted against four of the criteria and cast the lone vote against the petition.  Several other committee members voted “no” on two of the criteria, finding that the reorganization would disrupt the educational programs in OUSD and negatively impact the district’s fiscal status. Both went along with the majority to approve the transfer.

“I voted ‘no’,” Moffat said later, “because several of the criteria were not met.  I disagreed with the vote on some of them.  If all of the criteria are not met, a 'no' vote is in order.”

Geographically challenged
The five-plus-hour hearing (including travel time), revolved around Panorama Heights parents’ insistence that they lived in North Tustin, joined clubs, organizations and churches in that community, and wanted their children to attend school with the friends they had made in those environments.   

Attorney Spencer Covert pointed out that Panorama Elementary School – where petitioners’ children currently, or will attend – is in North Tustin and bears the name of the neighborhood.

Petitioner Jennifer Lampson told the committee that Panorama Heights has “no relationship with OUSD.” “We sent emails to all the board members,” she said, “and only one (Moffat) got back to us.  They want no part of us. They only want our money.”

Covert advised that Panorama has 401 enrollees and losing the expected 52 of them to TUSD would result in reduced staff, disrupted programs, possible combination classes and loss of resources. 

Colleen Patterson reported on the financial impact OUSD would face if it lost the 90-plus K-12 students who live in Panorama Heights. Not only would the district lose the state allotment of $8,675 per student, Panorama Heights’ exit would decrease the overall assessed valuation that OUSD based its bond financing on.  The lower district-wide valuation would, she said, have “adverse impacts on the district’s bonding capacity.”

Go where you wanna go
Acting OUSD Superintendent Hansen also stressed that it was open to inter-district transfers, and approved 95 percent of those requested.  Parents disagreed, claiming it was “hard” to get those transfers and since they had to be reissued every year, their students had no assurance that they could stay at the TUSD school after the original transfer expired. 

The OUSD Board of Education had voted twice to oppose the transfer.  TUSD remained neutral. 

Among the new members who were not on the county committee when Panorama Heights’ original petition was denied last year are Moffat from OUSD and Francine Scinto from Tustin Unified.

The committee majority accepted the petitioners’ premise that Panorama Heights residents were immersed in the North Tustin culture, and that TUSD was a better fit for them.  While several expressed concerns over the financial impact on OUSD and the traffic/congestion that could be imposed on Tustin’s Arroyo Elementary, they seemed relieved when told that the next step would be a vote by affected parties.

“So that’s our fallback position,” member Suzie Swarts said.  “The voters will have the last word.” The precincts voting on the issue will be decided by the committee.  

OUSD may appeal the decision to the State Board of Education.  If it does, that will delay the vote.