By Tina Richards
Parents in the Panorama Heights neighborhood of North Tustin have, once again, filed a petition with the Orange County Department of Education to transfer their children from the Orange Unified School District to Tustin Unified.
The petition was signed by voters in that community with school-age children, who say they live, attend events, play sports, join youth groups, make friends and participate in all things North Tustin, but must attend school in Orange Unified.
“It’s all about the kids,” says parent Marlene Graham. “Their friends from scouts, church groups, Little League, soccer, the kids they run into at the grocery store, all go to Arroyo Elementary in TUSD. But our children go to Panorama in OUSD.”
Parents in upper Panorama Heights filed a similar petition last year, but it was denied by the County Department of Education committee that oversees district changes. The petition to transfer to TUSD was denied because it was deemed not to meet all of the criteria needed for approval. A major concern at that time was that transferring only upper Panorama students would create an “island,” with school-age residents of lower Panorama Heights remaining in OUSD.
A surge in signatures
Transfer advocates recirculated the petition, this time including families in lower Panorama Heights as well. The more comprehensive petition was ratified by the Registrar of Voters, July 14. Graham notes that every parent with school-age children that she spoke to wanted to transfer to Tustin Unified. “Zero percent said they’d rather stay in OUSD,” she says.
Another major stumbling block to the original petition was fiscal impact. It may well be again. In a written response to the Orange County Department of Education, OUSD reported it would lose approximately $791,984 in revenues annually if the projected 95 Panorama Heights students left the district. With a predicted overall decline of 541 students districtwide in 2017-18, OUSD expects to lose a total $4,510,141 next year.
Those numbers are not the whole story, Graham explains. OUSD is basing its financials on 95 students, but it’s less than that. Some of those students, will not be going to Panorama or matriculating to Santiago Middle School or El Modena because they're enrolled in private schools. OUSD, she points out, will be losing that money anyway.
Bond base bruised
OUSD also advised the Department of Education that if Panorama Heights left, it would impact the district’s bonding capacity. The dollar amount of bonds issued is dependent on the district’s overall assessed property valuation. When Measure S was presented to voters, the assessed valuation included properties in Panorama Heights. No bonds have yet been issued, although the district expects to do so in 2018 or 2019.
Property values, whether related to a bond measure or not, are one of the transfer criteria the county committee looks at. If the move is intended to increase property values, giving “financial advantage to property owners because territory was transferred from one district to another,” the request will be denied.
Orange Unified asserts that Panorama Heights parents are simply looking to increase property values because, it says, the average home price in TUSD is 18.5 percent higher than in OUSD. That could not be further from the truth, petitioners insist. “Property values only count if you’re selling,” Jennifer Lampson emphasizes. “We’re not going anywhere. People who move into this neighborhood stay; and property values in Panorama Heights are $1 million or more. What’s a few thousand dollars on top of that? It’s ridiculous.”
The North Tustin contingent of OUSD parents also emphasize that the only reason they are seeking a transfer is to benefit their kids who grow up being part of that community until they start school. “We identify with North Tustin,” Graham reiterates. “TUSD schools make sense for us.”
What’s in an address?
Particularly galling to petitioners is OUSD’s one-dimensional definition of their community identity. In its written comments to the county, OUSD noted that Panorama Elementary School’s zip code, 92705, is the same as North Tustin’s; that the mailing address for both residents and the school is Santa Ana.
During the public hearing on the subject, Aug. 17, OUSD Attorney Spencer Covert advised the board that the elementary school was, in fact, named “Panorama,” suggesting that was enough to make the community “identify” with OUSD.
During last year’s failed petition hearing, Covert suggested that the community could easily change its identity from North Tustin to Orange by driving up Crawford Canyon north to Chapman instead of south to Newport. He recommended that residents could frequent Albertsons and Starbucks, both on Chapman.
The Orange County Committee on School District Organization will hold two public hearings, Sept. 6, to weigh the merits of the petition. The first is at 6 p.m. at Tustin Unified, 300 S. C Street; the second at 8 p.m. at Orange Unified, 1401 N. Handy Street.
“We hope the committee will listen to us, and recognize we don’t have ulterior motives,” Marlene Graham says. “We’re thinking of our kids. Orange Unified, on the other hand, looks at our kids and just sees dollar signs.”
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