By Tina Richards

A Panorama Heights neighborhood petition asking for a transfer from Orange Unified to Tustin Unified was rejected by the county committee mandated to rule on school district boundaries.

The County Committee on School District Reorganization found that three of the nine criteria required for transfer approval had not been met. Transfer proponents vow to try again.

The decision was rendered at back-to-back public hearings held May 17 at the Orange (OUSD) and Tustin (TUSD) offices. Petitioners Marlene Graham, Jennifer Lampman and Catherine Mayberry stressed that their desire to leave OUSD for Tustin Unified was a reflection of their community identity.  “We live in North Tustin,” Graham told the committee. “We identify with North Tustin. Our kids participate in North Tustin activities – soccer, scouts, church programs – but they go to school in Orange.”

A host of public speakers elaborated on Panorama Heights’ sense of isolation when it comes to schooling.  “My child goes to pre-school in North Tustin,” one said, “but will lose the friends she’s making there when she matriculates into OUSD’s Panorama Elementary -- and her playmates all go to Arroyo in Tustin.”

“We are closer to Foothill High and Hewes Middle School,” another noted.  “We drive past them every day.”

Home is where the heart is

“We have no complaints with OUSD,” Graham said.  “Panorama Elementary is a great school.  The district’s programs are excellent.  We’re just asking to unify our neighborhood with the rest of North Tustin.”

TUSD took a neutral position on the issue. Superintendent Gregory Franklin assured the committee that if it approved the transfer, TUSD could and would accommodate the new students, but it did not offer an opinion or preference on the outcome.

OUSD opposed the transfer. Its desire to keep Panorama Heights within its boundaries was affirmed by a 4 to 1 (two members were absent) board vote, May 12.  The OUSD board was advised by its staff that the loss of 54 Panorama Heights students would cost the district about $400,000 per year. The $400K was deemed significant because OUSD is already losing $3,292,610 per year, due to declining enrollment. It was also noted that the transfer did not include “lower” Panorama Heights, and that neighborhood would remain in OUSD as an “island,” disconnected from the rest of the district.

OUSD was represented at the public hearing by Spencer Covert, a Tustin-based attorney specializing in school district policy and litigation.  He suggested to the committee that Panorama Heights’ “community identity” argument was disingenuous, that transfer proponents were actually seeking to increase their property values (residences in Tustin Unified historically demand slightly higher prices than their counterparts in OUSD).  He also explained that residents could easily “identify” with Orange as well as North Tustin –– they could shop at Albertson’s, buy coffee at Starbucks. And, he pointed out, North Tustin is a misnomer because mailing addresses in that area are officially “Santa Ana.”

The price to pay

He emphasized that the $400K loss to OUSD was substantial, amounting to one percent of the total salaries of classified  employees. Covert also mentioned OUSD’s financial loss due to declining enrollment, and the district’s need for bond money to cover facility improvements.

Immediately following the proceedings in Orange, committee members, school representatives and transfer proponents migrated to  TUSD  headquarters  to  finish the hearing.

In Tustin, Panorama Heights parents reiterated their singular goal of “connecting with the North Tustin community that we are already part of,” reported “zero neighborhood opposition to the transfer,” and claimed that both districts should honor their “parental rights” to send their children to schools of their choosing.

OUSD noted that parents could already request transfers to TUSD schools, and they would be honored “if there was room.” Not that easy, the Panorama Heights contingent countered, “our transfer requests are often denied.”

Catherine Mayberry took exception to the assumption that they were looking to increase property values. “We’re not flipping homes,” she said. “These are our forever homes that we what to raise our families in.”

Ben Mayberry criticized the hearing’s focus on money. “You’re holding our children hostage for a few dollars,” he said. And, with Panorama Heights representing just 0.018 percent of OUSD’s total enrollment, he couldn’t believe the monetary loss was significant.

A unified front

Several residents from lower Panorama Heights testified that they, too, wanted to transfer to TUSD.  “Can you amend the petition to include us?” Theresa Shermer asked. The committee could not.

Before the committee could rule on the transfer itself, it had to agree that nine criteria established by the State Board of Education had been met.  Three criteria loosely related to the orphaned lower Panorama Heights island  and  the  financial  burden placed on OUSD did not get majority consensus. Therefore, the petition was denied.

Graham, Lampson and Mayberry are already working with their lower Panorama Heights neighbors to develop a more inclusive petition.  “We collected signatures for the original petition in one morning,” Graham said. “It was not an organized effort. But not one parent, from the top of the hill to the bottom, is opposed to the idea.”

Petitioners believe their next effort will eliminate the lower Panorama Heights “island,” and thus quell those OUSD and county committee objections.

Ben Mayberry is not sure that will be enough. “It’s all about the money,” he said.  “It always is.”

Panorama Heights transfer to TUSD turned down