MALIBU — A study commissioned by parents shows that a Malibu-only school district could meet most of the legal requirements for leaving the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, but many questions remain regarding how the process can move forward.
According to the study, a Malibu Unified School District would have the population and funds necessary to split off, but it would need to prove that it could meet the needs of special and alternative education students and that the majority of Malibu residents were in favor of leaving.
Other issues that would need to be addressed include splitting property between the two new districts and securing special legislation to preserve the Measure R parcel tax, which the report refers to as “crucial to deem the reorganization viable.” Measure R was approved by 73 percent of the voters in 2008 and generated roughly $10.6 million in 2011-12.
Craig Foster, president of Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, which commissioned the study, said that although many questions had yet to be answered, the report showed that the district was capable of meeting the nine criteria prescribed under the Education Code.
“There are no difficult solutions here. We’re committed to making it work,” Foster said.
Members of the Malibu community have been pushing to break away from the existing district for many years, citing a sense that the two communities are too different and geographically separate to work as a single entity.
They have long been upset with the lack of Malibu representation on the board. The last representative from Malibu, Kathy Wisnicki, left the board in 2008.
A slate of three Malibu candidates, including Foster, failed to beat out the three Santa Monica incumbents in the most recent election.
The report was paid for by Malibu parents and created with the cooperation of SMMUSD officials, who promised to work with them to explore the possible split in 2012.
It addresses nine criteria laid out by the Education Code that the Los Angeles County Office of Education will have to consider if a petition to break up the district garners enough signatures from Malibu voters.
That body will make a recommendation which then gets forwarded to the state Department of Education, which can either act on the matter or shelve it perpetually.
In the end, the state organization can approve or deny the application, no matter how many criteria the new district meets.
If it’s voted down, the measure dies. If it’s approved, it then goes to the voters.
The entire process can take several years.
It can also be very costly. Foster estimates it may take $2 million to put on a full court press to push the proposal through the county level, past the state decisionmakers and then fund the necessary local electoral campaign.
“That’s a small price to pay,” he said.
Although the report resolves some basic questions about the proposed districts’ feasibility, it raises many others, said Jan Maez, the chief financial officer with SMMUSD.
The full district has $250 million worth of bond debt from various building projects and just voted to make another $385 million available in the Nov. 6 election, and splitting that up will take significant negotiation.
Also, if Malibu leaves, the existing district would lose 17 percent of its population, and therefore a significant number of dollars. The report suggests solving that problem by cutting back on “overhead” — read “employees” — but exactly how that might happen from an operational or union perspective is unclear, Maez said.
It also raises some interesting legal questions, said Ben Allen, a Board of Education member who has expressed willingness to investigate Malibu’s departure in the past.
“There are a ton of details to be worked out,” Allen said. “One of the real difficulties at play involves the fact that there is no entity, legally recognized entity, that can take on obligations on behalf of any future Malibu Unified School District.”
That causes problems for unions, who have no one to bargain with should some of their workers go to the newly-formed district.
It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum created by the fact that unification, as the secession process is paradoxically called, is a very uncommon act with little precedent and law to govern it.
“Every one of these is unique,” said Superintendent Sandra Lyon. “There are nine criteria, but it is a process, and nothing winds its way through that process in the same way.”
The full board is expected to have a hearing on the matter at the end of February or early March.
At that point, Allen said, he will be focused on determining whether the concept of separation best serves the district’s children.
“I’m committed to working on this issue with a very open mind. I’m committed to treating all of the key stakeholders fairly, and at the end of the day our decision has to be guided by the best interests of the kids,” he said.
Foster and his constituents believe that can be achieved, and might even be best achieved by separating.
“We’re committed to working it out. We feel there’s no reason this can’t be a win-win for everybody,” Foster said.

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