MALIBU — Concerned that the state budget crisis and declining enrollment at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School could prompt the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to close the award-winning campus, a coalition of parents and teachers at the campus want permission to operate it under an independent charter.

Leaders of the school’s charter conversion effort say they plan to submit a formal petition to the district by September and hope to operate independently from SMMUSD by the 2011-2012 school year.

The school’s 11 teachers have unanimously supported the decision to move ahead with the conversion process, said Robyn Ross, the school’s Parent Teacher Association president. A majority of teachers at a school must support a charter bid in order to take the request to the school board.

“We know that because of the state budget cuts and declining enrollment there’s a good chance that a Malibu elementary school will be slated for closure, not next year but the following year,” Ross said. “I have been a parent at this school for seven years and there have been many discussions about doing this, but the time now is right.”

If the SMMUSD school board declines to authorize the charter, she said Point Dume parents plan to take their petition to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which she said can also authorize charters. The petition will lay out a detailed plan for the proposed charter school, including a five-year projected budget.

If their request is granted, Point Dume would remain a state-funded public school within the SMMUSD but would be free to make operational and personnel decisions independent of the district and the school board. It would also be able to hold fundraisers to benefit only Point Dume programs, with money raised not subject to the district’s equity fund requirement, which redistributes 15 percent of proceeds to all schools in the district.

A small group of the Point Dume charter school advocates met with Superintendent Tim Cuneo on Wednesday to discuss the idea, and about 120 parents attended a general meeting about the proposed conversion that evening, Ross said.

“The support was overwhelming and it has been very, very positive,” she said of the response from parents. “I have not heard about anybody that’s questioning it at this point.”

But Cuneo said he was surprised to learn of the group’s plan to petition the district for a charter, especially because Point Dume is a high achieving school that this week was recognized as a California Distinguished School by the state’s Department of Education. Typically, he said, parents petition districts for charters when they’re displeased with the level of student achievement.

He also denied there are plans to close Point Dume or any other school in the district.

“Closing a school is just not on the radar right now,” he said. “I can’t say it would never be, but … it certainly isn’t now. It’s a rumor.”

Point Dume has the second lowest enrollment total of any school in the district with 264 students, Cuneo said, and district projections predict that figure will decrease to 215 by 2015.

Ali Thonson, another Point Dume parent, said fear that the school could be shuttered has been the primary motivation to back the charter conversion push.

“The main reason is we want to be proactive and we want to prevent closure,” she said. “We feel that in order to honor our children, honor the teachers that have worked so hard to create this incredible school, and honor our community, that we need to do what we can to preserve our school.”

Ross said the conversion effort has nothing to do with side-stepping the 15 percent equity fund contribution requirement for fundraising dollars.

“We do a significant amount of fund raising already, we’ve had to do that for many years in order to alleviate some of the effects of state budget cuts, and we would continue to do that,” she said. “We have always happily paid into the equity fund, and it’s a good program.”

School Board President Barry Snell called Point Dume “a high performing school” that has been “very successful in our district,” but declined to comment on the charter advocates’ proposal.

“There’s so many unanswered questions,” he said. “This is so preliminary.”

He also denied there was any plan to close a school in the district.

“Logistically, up in Malibu it’s very difficult to close a school. They’re so far [apart from] each other. We’re concerned about that.”

A call to Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association President Harry Keiley seeking comment about the proposed charter conversion was not returned by deadline Friday.

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