MALIBU — The group of residents suing the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District over the installation of lights at Malibu High’s football field issued a public call to elected officials to reveal the true impact of the lights on the district’s finances.
SMMUSD put money up to install the 70-foot lights and has been covering the cost of the litigation begun by the Malibu Community Alliance, a community group that objects to the disturbance of Malibu’s traditionally dark skies by the field lighting, as well as the impact that the tall poles have on the views from their homes.
Jan Maez, the district’s chief financial officer, said that legal fees have exceeded $100,000. That cost does not include the installation of the lights.
The group believes those figures could be higher, and include $50,000 incurred by the city of Malibu, which the district is required to pay as part of an agreement with city officials.
That comes on top of the money that the district has advanced for the installation, although that money is expected to be reimbursed by the Shark Fund, a nonprofit fundraising organization for Malibu High School that has agreed to hold money raised by community members who support the lights.
No formal agreement exists detailing reimbursement for the lights or litigation costs. The money spent on attorneys defending against the alliance’s lawsuit remains a gray area, with district officials holding onto the belief that both the city of Malibu and the Shark Fund will help defray the expenses.
“I would certainly hope that the Shark Fund would be able to find some funds to be able to refund the district,” Maez said Tuesday.
That dissent gave traction to the alliance’s claims that the district, which faces a multi-million operational deficit, is putting its limited resources behind the wrong racehorse.
Members have been voicing those concerns at recent Board of Education meetings.
“All of these fees will be paid out of the district’s general fund, reducing funds available for needed academic programs,” the alliance said in a release.
Funding for the lights is convoluted at best.
A community group called Bring on the Lights organized efforts to raise funds to pay for the lights and installation, and the Shark Fund agreed to act as the receiver of that money, said Seth Jacobson, a parent in the district and president of the Shark Fund.
Bring on the Lights paid $170,000 directly to Musco, the company that created the lights, and another $250,000 to the district to begin paying back the roughly $650,000 that the district fronted to pay for the installation of the lights and other associated costs.
That still leaves the district sitting with over $300,000 invested in the lights and litigation with the alliance.
The lawsuit, filed in July, alleged that the city of Malibu erred in approving the permit that allowed City Hall to install field lighting without first getting a recommendation from the city’s Planning Commission.
It also alleged that City Hall violated environmental laws by approving the lights without what it considered an appropriate environmental review.
In October, a judge ruled that the lights could be used on the field until Nov. 8, 2012.
That was considered a win for both the pro and anti-lights sides because the dates coincided with Malibu High School’s homecoming game while buying time to work out a compromise that covered how many nights the lights can be used and how long the poles that support the lights can be erected.
Those negotiations fell apart because the alliance refused to come to the table beyond demanding that the lights could only be used 16 nights out of the year.
That would only cover football games, and wouldn’t meet the needs of the high school’s athletic department, Jacobson said. Those in favor of the lights have been pushing for a 72-day limit approved by the Malibu City Council.
“Every time we get close to a reasonable sort of dialogue, they started asking for more concessions,” he said. “After a while, it became ridiculous.”
In November, a judge denied a preliminary injunction filed by the alliance to stop the use of the lights for the duration of the lawsuit.
The next step would be a trial, Maez said, which could increase attorney costs to the district.
That puts a spotlight on the Shark Fund and Bring on the Lights, which have had a significant voice in negotiations with the alliance despite the fact that they are not party to the lawsuit.
“They have put close to $420,000 toward this effort,” Maez said. “Certainly they have a vested interest, and we are aware of that. What the Shark Fund thinks and feels as a group is important to the board’s decision.”
There is an easy solution to the problem, said Pete Anthony, who heads up Bring on the Lights.
“They’re suing the district and then going to the paper with how much the district is spending to defend itself,” Anthony said. “They are the ones that control what the district spends and they can stop what they’re doing today, easily.”