England doesn’t want to be part of Europe, Scotland might not want to be part of Great Britain, Catalonia doesn’t want to be part of Spain, the Kurds want out of Iraq and Quebec doesn’t like being part of Canada. Secession is the hot topic in international politics and while the stakes are not life and death here, passions are no less fierce in the sun-soaked and moneyed enclaves of Los Angeles County when it comes to matters of local control
The City of Malibu, both as a community and a municipality, has long sought to break free from Santa Monica and establish its own school district. The effort appeared to be gaining momentum in recent months with several committees studying possible paths to an amicable divorce but discussions hit a speed bump earlier this month.
The Board balked at the projected revenues for a split district and the October 30 meeting devolved into contentious finger-pointing over who was to blame for the hurt feelings.
The meeting ended with direction to Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati to explore two options.
A: would Malibu be satisfied as an autonomous region within SMMUSD?
B: if not, can the two sides agree on a revenue-sharing agreement that would offset growth differences between standalone or joint districts?
Drati met with members of the Malibu community including members of the city council and the Malibu Schools Leadership Council (MSLC) to discuss increased autonomy for Malibu while remaining part of the district or pursuing true independence with an increased price tag. This week it became clear Malibu is willing to pay whatever it takes to go its own way.
Revenue per student will increase over time whether the district is split or remains intact according to several reports. No matter what the configuration, funding will eventually move to a “basic aid” model that links school funding to property tax revenues. Basic Aid districts often have greater revenues than their state-funded counterparts due to higher rates of growth but they can be subject to greater volatility.
The sticking point for the board was the rate of growth for a joint vs. separated districts as revenues for Santa Monica students will rise more slowly if the district is split compared to the joint system.
According to data from a report prepared by consultant SSC, by 2032-33 (the final year of the model), a Malibu district would receive $10,404 (41%) more per student than the Santa Monica/Malibu projected funding level of $25,256. A Santa Monica only district would receive $2,086 (8%) less than the joint district.
An analysis from the Malibu Unification Negotiations Committee makes a similar conclusion and both suggest some kind of payment system to ease the split, albeit with differing methodologies. Both reports agree that payments would eventually end and the board asked Drati to see if Malibu is willing to extend payments over 50 years.
At the Nov. 16 meeting, Drati said he met with Malibu stakeholders and explained how a reorganized district could provide additional independence to Malibu.
“I did articulate that vision and both committees said they were not interested,” he said. “Some did state they have an interest in that as a stop gap to another option we will need to consider, which is option B, which is shared revenue that we will need to flesh out.”
More than 30 individuals took to the podium to comment on the issue with the vast majority favoring a split. Malibu advocates said they are not represented fairly in a joint district (Malibu voters account for about 16 percent of the total voting pool), receive fewer services at their school sites and are culturally distinct from Santa Monica. Many accused the Board of thwarting their efforts for financial gain.
Sam Hall Kaplan likened the situation to an absentee landlord who neglects his property while cashing the checks.
“Representing Malibu is distinct and different and separate,” he said. “Do the right thing. You know it in your hearts, this is not a question of money, not a question of greed, it’s a question of doing the right thing.”
Malibu Councilman Jeff Wagner read a letter stating the city’s desire for autonomy is about providing appropriate representation to citizens.
“For Malibu, this separation is a necessity so that the constituents of our district are able to elect the people that decide the education of their children,” he said. “We see this as the only way that Malibu students will receive and have access to the same services and facilities as their counterparts in Santa Monica. We will no longer be deprived and treated unequally due to the fact that we have no say in the decision-making process. This is also about local control and autonomy, as well as the safety of our local schoolchildren. The financial arrangement must be based on the costs of operating Malibu schools with equal services and support, NOT on equal revenue per child.”
Wagner asked for Malibu to be assigned its own Superintendent and support staff while a final proposal is worked out.
A few individuals spoke in favor of remaining a joint district with a pair of Santa Monica students citing their experience as evidence the system helps low-income families succeed. A couple of individuals adopted a more neutral stance stating any decision should be focused on the needs of all the children in the area.
“At the end of the day it is about these kids and that should be our priority,” said Erica Leslie.
The Board stopped short of actually approving anything at the meeting but there seemed to be a consensus that a 50-year payment plan would satisfy their fiscal concerns. Additional recommendations in the MUNC report such as divisions of property and handling bond financing were left open pending more analysis by staff.
Boardmembers did say a parallel proposal to forcefully split the district was an impediment to their work.
The City of Malibu has filed a petition with the Los Angeles County Office of Education asking for the creation of a Malibu school district with no fiscal obligation. The Board asked if that application could be delayed or withdrawn pending the Board’s work to draft their own proposal and if the City’s application remained active, SMMUSD would need to actively oppose it.
“We can’t put ourselves in a position where if the petition is going to go forward, where we’re sitting on our hands and haven’t done the work or haven’t had someone do the work to oppose it,” said Board President Laurie Lieberman. “The petition minus the financial aspect doesn’t work.”
While Malibu advocates have asked for action on their proposal by the end of the year, the Board said it wouldn’t rush the complex discussions but they did set a tentative date of Feb. 14 for a vote on terms of separation.
Drati said that in addition to working towards a potential separation, he would continue to develop plans that could increase satisfaction in Malibu incase County or State regulators reject a request to split.
“There’s a case that separation may not occur and in that sense, we’ve still got to live together and I hope that people at least hear that here,” he said.