Say hello to the elephant in the room.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District appears ready to explore the separation of the district into two entities, a topic that has been simmering for months among officials and stakeholders.

The local Board of Education last week voiced its support for the hiring of law firm Dannis Woliver Kelley, which would analyze the potential ramifications of splitting the district into Santa Monica and Malibu factions.

The issue returns amid ongoing tension between the district and Malibu activists, who have repeatedly criticized the district for its handling of chemical testing and cleanup at Malibu campuses and its centralized fundraising system.

The contract in question wouldbe funded entirely by Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, a nonprofit group of which SMMUSD board member Craig Foster is a founding member and former president.

“The students of Santa Monica and the students of Malibu would both be better off if we separated the school district,” Foster says in a video on the AMPS website.

Foster and his fellow school board members expressedsupport forthe contract but postponed its approval until a formal agreement with AMPS has been signed — a step that is expected soon.

Avote to approve the rest of the consentcalendar items was initially moved by board vice president Jose Escarce and seconded by Foster. Board member Oscar de la Torre was not present for the 6-0 decision.

Separation gained momentum about a year ago, when the district’s Financial Oversight Committee was tasked with weighing the fiscal consequences of separation. The committee was asked to look into the potential division of assets and liabilities as well as possible impacts on operational costs.

The committee has compiled “a great deal of information” and is prepared to present it to the school board in the coming weeks, according to SMMUSD chief financial officer Jan Maez. The law firm would build on the finance committee’s work with input from the school board, she said.

“There are some solutions in the question of assets and liabilities, but we feel there’s a need for additional legal advice in developing a plan and how to execute that plan should the board choose to give us that direction,” Maez said.

Janet Mueller’s team at Dannis Woliver Kelley will be expected to evaluate the ramifications of separation, develop a plan for a possible split and potentially assist the district in executing the plan, according to Maez. The entire process will involve checkpoints that require district approval.

The district’s contract with the law firm includes hourly rates of $225-310 for partners and special counsel, $185-225 for associates and $120-140 for paralegals and law clerks. The pending agreement requires AMPS to reimburse the district on a monthly basis.

Maez estimated the total cost of the firm’s services to be between $110,000 and $185,000.

Board members said they fully support exploring separation but sought confirmation from AMPS before moving forward.

“It’s about not wanting to have a contract without having an agreement that I know where the money is going to come from to pay for it,” Escarce said. “It would be awful for AMPS and people in Malibu to be ponying up the bill for this and then to feel that something happened and it didn’t work out. … For us, we don’t want to be in a position where our decision to investigate is interpreted as a decision to deunify.”

Board member Ralph Mechur concurred, saying the contract with the law firm and the agreement with AMPS should be reviewed simultaneously.

“The fact that this is on the agenda means the district is paying attention and prepared to move forward,” he said.

Foster said it will be crucial for district officials, stakeholders and community members to have an understanding of how the firm’s progress will be monitored.

The contract would startthe conversations “that literally take us through filing papers to separate the districts, which we all agree is many decisions away,” he said. “This is creating a capacity.”

Board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein saw the pending contract as a major turning point for the board, the district and the people they serve.

“If we’re asking members of the community to put money on the table, we as a board have to say, ‘We are on this path, the train is leaving the station,'” he said. “It seems to me like one of those moments.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.

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