MALIBU — Advocates for an independent Malibu school district announced another step toward their goal this week by funding a second round of studies to work out the details of separation.
The second phase will examine concerns of groups directly impacted by the separation, including people who pay property taxes and the union representing local teachers.
It will be conducted by WestEd, a research consultant which will work with other bond consultants and attorneys as needed, said Craig Foster, president of Advocates for Malibu Public Schools or AMPS, the group pushing for separation.
“Because of the lack of precedent and rigor in this particular part of education code, we need to figure out how to achieve what we all want to achieve,” Foster said.
Separation, called “unification” in education parlance, is difficult to achieve, in part because the two districts must figure out a way to split property, much like a divorce. It’s also rarely done, meaning the district will be breaking new ground.
That includes parcel taxes and bonded indebtedness, like the $385 million bond passed by voters in November to pay for new facilities at both Santa Monica and Malibu campuses.
Part of the friction with the Malibu community has been the fact that although they have less than 20 percent of the student body, homeowners there pay more than 30 percent of the property taxes that go into bonds.
At the same time, their schools will get only 20 percent of the bond revenues for the district in the case of Measure ES, the new bond.
That promise was worked directly into the bond out of concerns that it would end up like Measure BB, a $268 million bond passed in 2006 in which money allocated to Malibu schools was shifted to Santa Monica High School in a last-minute vote by the Board of Education.
Another complicating factor is the presence of teachers represented by unions who currently work in schools in Malibu.
Some Malibu residents have been working to leave the district for years, citing cultural differences between the two communities which are separated by 13 miles of coastline.
The smaller, wealthier segment also feels that its needs are sometimes drowned out by the larger Santa Monica population, a sentiment bolstered by the fact that there hasn’t been a Malibu representative on the Board of Education since 2008.
Three Malibu residents — Foster, Karen Farrer and Seth Jacobson — ran for the board in 2012 only to be defeated by three incumbents.
Beyond issues of representation are fundamental differences between the two communities, including the perceived need of Malibu residents for their public schools to compete with the more expensive private schools in the area.
Splitting is one way to ensure that all of the schools in (potentially) both districts are able to meet the needs of their students and their own potential, Foster said.
In a release put out Tuesday, AMPS noted that Malibu High School was ranked 74th in the state by U.S. News & World Report, a publication that released its national high school rankings last week.
“There is no question that this is a great school, but it could be so much better,” Foster said.
School rankings must often be taken with a grain of salt, educators say.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals took on U.S. News & World Report rankings in 2012, noting that state tests, which play a factor in the rankings, differ in scope and rigor.
The data is also a few years old, said Terry Deloria, assistant superintendent of educational services in Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
“We know we have good schools here, and we will continue to work to make them better,” she said.
As to separation, even if things go smoothly, a final decision by the state Department of Education will take years to secure.
“We’re going to continue to operate as a unified school district and think about every school in our district,” Deloria said.