Welcome to OC! Lowell Joint becomes the first school district in California to switch counties

Along with running its own alternative and special education programs, the Orange County Department of Education provides support and fiscal oversight to 27 independently run school districts. And in just a few days, you can officially add one more to the list.

The Lowell Joint School District, which has long operated under the umbrella of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, will transfer over to OCDE’s jurisdiction starting Thursday, July 1, nearly 16 months after the shift was approved by local voters.

Lowell Joint School District Jim Coombs outside the district's offices
The Lowell Joint School District will become the 28th school system supported by the Orange County Department of Education starting July 1. Superintendent Jim Coombs, pictured above, says the transfer from L.A. county will save Lowell Joint nearly $250,000 a year while enabling his district to participate more fully in Orange County educational initiatives.

In sports terms, it’s akin to a veteran free agent donning the cap and jersey of a new team. But this is believed to be a first for a school district — at least in California.

“This is the first time the state has transferred a school district from one county to another via a ballot measure,” said Dean West, OCDE’s associate superintendent of Business Services.

Promoting rigorous academics along with STEM and arts programs, Lowell Joint serves more than 3,000 K-8 students in La Habra, which is in Orange County, and La Habra Heights and Whittier, which are both in Los Angeles County. While the district isn’t the only one in California to straddle two counties, it does have a few unique geographical twists.

For example, three of the its five elementary schools are in Orange County, but its only middle school is in Los Angeles County. And while two-thirds of Lowell Joint’s students reside in Los Angeles County, 98 percent of them matriculate to the Fullerton Joint Union High School District, which happens to be in Orange County.

It’s that last statistic that may have been the clincher.

Because an overwhelming majority of students will go on to attend schools in Fullerton Joint, it’s critical for the two districts to work together to create a seamless experience for families. Sharing a county office of education makes it more efficient to coordinate everything from career technical education and grant applications to student supports, such as the California Multi-Tiered System of Support framework led by OCDE.

Come July, the Lowell Joint School District headquarters will remain in Whittier. But the district will route its funding through the Orange County Treasury and operate within OCDE’s financial systems. Under the direction of County Superintendent Al Mijares, OCDE will also assume responsibility for fiscal oversight and approval of Lowell Joint’s state-mandated accountability plan — services that are typically provided by a county office.

Strong customer service

Superintendent Jim Coombs said the changeover is expected to save his district nearly $250,000 a year in operational costs by leveraging some of the legal and fiscal services OCDE provides. It also enables his district to participate more fully in Orange County educational initiatives.

“Orange County has always helped us when they could, and they’ve included us when they could,” he said. “We’ve always been able to be involved, but there are a number of projects that Orange County has done that we simply were not legally allowed to participate in until now.”

Coombs also praised OCDE for its strong customer service, which, he said, was on full display during the transition.

“The Orange County folks have been beyond helpful and asking all the right questions,” he said. “There’s never been a situation where they go, ‘I don’t know. That’s your job.’ Instead their response is, ‘We don’t know, but we’ll find out and then we’ll work it out together.’”

Backed by voters

Lowell Joint was originally founded in 1906, and it was sometime around the district’s 100th birthday that a former superintendent began exploring the possibility of changing jurisdictions. Then the Great Recession hit, forcing staff to tend to more pressing matters.

About five years ago, Lowell Joint revisited the topic and reached out to OCDE’s chief legal counsel, who advised that the shift could take place if both county superintendents agreed to it. But the previous Los Angeles County superintendent respectfully conveyed that LACOE couldn’t support the change. That left one other option — putting the matter to local voters.

In March 2020, more than 70 percent of Lowell Joint voters backed Measure O, which formally authorized the transfer of governance to Orange County from Los Angeles. Recognizing there would be more than a few bureaucratic hoops to jump through, the measure targeted July 1, 2021 to complete the transition.

Marking the transition

The process proved to be a learning experience for everyone involved, necessitating multiple cross-agency collaborations. Gary Stine, OCDE’s executive director of Business Services, and other staff worked with such agencies as the California Department of Education, the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the treasurer-tax collectors and auditor-controllers for both counties.

While no big ceremonies are planned, Lowell Joint officials plan to modestly mark the occasion at the district’s next Board of Education meeting on June 28. In the meantime, Coombs had only positive things to say about the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which will continue to be a partner, and the district’s new teammates at OCDE.

“The entire OCDE business team has done a huge amount of the work because there are so many microscopic details no one would ever have thought of — because no one’s ever done this before,” Coombs said. “Our appreciation is more than anyone could fully express.”