Panorama Heights' exit from OUSD will be determined by vote -- eventually

By Tina Richards

A North Tustin neighborhood’srequest to transfer from Orange Unified to the Tustin Unified School District will be determined by voters in the precincts covering the Panorama Elementary attendance area, as ruled by the county committee charged with district reorganization, Nov. 15. 

Orange Unified is opposed to the transfer, and appeared in force at the committee meeting to ask that everyone in the district be allowed to vote on the transfer. “We’re a family,” OUSD Board President Rick Ledesma said. “The transfer will impact everyone in the district, and everyone should be allowed to vote on it.”

Ledesma’s reference to the impact of some 94 elementary school students leaving the OUSD “family” and similar tes-timony presented by other district representatives was too little, too late. The Orange County Committee on District Reorganization had approved the transfer, Sept. 6, following dual meetings at both district headquarters that were
poorly attended by anyone from OUSD. In contrast, the Panorama Heights parents requesting the transfer filled both meeting rooms with advocates.

Live and learn
Parents asked for the transfer to Tustin Unified because they live in North Tustin, their children participate in activities in that area, and are separated from friends and community when they start school at Panorama Elementary in OUSD. Parents stressed that they found nothing wrong with Orange Unified, but simply wanted their children to
attend school in the same community they were geographically and socially connected to.

Their first transfer request, last year, was rejected because the petitioners represented only upper Panorama Heights and did not include lower Panorama Heights. The committee found that transferring only upper Panorama Heights would create an unacceptable island. Petitioners vowed to return with signatures representing all North Tustin
families who were part of OUSD, and they did so in September.

A handful of OUSD representatives argued against the transfer at that time, noting that losing nearly one-quarter of Panorama Elementary’s student population would jeopardize the school’s staffing and programs. They also cited the financial hardship the district would suffer if it lost state funding for daily attendance, and noted that the district’s impending Measure S school bond was drafted with Panorama Heights included. Without Panorama Heights taxpayers, bond revenues would be decreased.

Back to the ballot box
Despite OUSD’s objections, the committee voted 7-1 to approve the transfer application. Committee member Kathy Moffat, also an Orange Unified trustee, was the dissenting vote. While Tustin Unified remained neutral on the decision, OUSD’s opposition, by law, meant that constituents would make the final decision via a ballot measure.

The scope of the vote was up to the county committee. Orange Unified brought reinforcements to the ensuing November hearing. The interim superintendent, two board trustees, legal counsel, a half-dozen staff members, an
Orange city councilwoman and a contingent from CARE, the group that helped pass Measure S, lined up to convince the committee that the entire Orange Unified School District should vote on the Panorama Heights transfer.

Petitioners Marlene Graham, Corine Peterson and Jennifer Lampman were surprised. “I’ve never seen so many people from OUSD in one place before,” Graham said. “We wanted to meet with them. We emailed the superintendent, we emailed the trustees, we followed up with phone calls. No one got back to us. We were ignored. Rick Ledesma is the trustee for our area. He never responded to us. But now he’s here.”

Case closed
While most of the OUSD speakers focused on the districtwide vote, several revisited the financial and programmatic reasons why Panorama Heights should not be allowed to leave the district. A few questioned the parents’ motives, suggesting they did not like OUSD’s demographics, or just wanted to increase their property values by joining Tustin Unified.

All of the Panorama Heights parents and several committee members took issue with the rehash. “We’re not here to argue the merits of the petition,” Lampson reminded the committee. “You found we met the criteria. Now people are here arguing your decision.”

“I’m surprised to see board members here this time, but not last time,” committee member Virginia Wilson said. “The diversity issues, the financial issues, we’ve dealt with before.”

“OUSD and TUSD are about the same,” committee member and Tustin Unified Trustee Francine Scinto reported. “There’s very little difference between them.”

“We’re North Tustin families,” Marlene Graham reiterated. “We want to go to North Tustin schools.”

She, along with a number of her neighbors, explained to the committee why a local vote was more appropriate than a district-wide ballot measure. Most OUSD voters would not understand the issue, and may not even be aware
that Panorama Heights existed. “Asking all Orange Unified residents to vote on something unfamiliar to them would be stacking the deck against us,” Corine Peterson said.

Fair and equitable
County Committee Attorney Lysa Saltzman cited legal precedents for both district-wide and attendance area votes. “The petition area would be appropriate for this election,” she said, “but the committee has broad discretion
in deciding. Whichever way you go, either side may appeal.”

As the committee wrestled with the merits of a district-wide vote versus one limited to the Panorama Elementary attendance area, Karin Freeman suggested a “fair and equitable” compromise. Since the transfer would impact
Panorama Elementary, Santiago Middle School and El Modena High, she recommended those precincts be allowed to vote.

A good idea, the committee agreed, but probably too complicated. Virginia Wilson motioned to restrict the vote to Panorama Elementary; Kathy Moffat offered a substitute motion advocating the vote include the El Modena High School area. Her substitute motion failed, 7-2. Wilson’s motion passed, 7 -2.

Orange Unified can appeal the election decision to the state Board of Education. If it does, that will delay the vote. If it
doesn’t, the transfer could be presented to voters as early as June 2018. Even so, the outcome is not imminent. “A series of things have to happen,” attorney Saltzman advised. “And then it would take effect the next fiscal year. It could be a couple of years before the boundaries change.”