After months of study and analysis by a financial oversight committee, separation of the Santa Monica-Malibu school district has been deemed viable.

But it’s certainly not as simple as splitting the district in two and moving on, a reality that Board of Education members and district officials reiterated to stakeholders during their discussion of the topic on July 15.

Although the committee did not identify any “deal-breakers,” it pointed to several significant financial and legal obstacles involving bonds, taxes and environmental remediation as the school board weighed how to proceed on the matter.

One of the biggest potential challenges would likely be the division of money arriving through Measure BB and Measure ES.

Measure BB, which voters approved in 2006, designated $268 million in bonds for local schools.

In 2012 voters also passed Measure ES, which is providing $385 million in bonds for technology and facility upgrades in SMMUSD. The latter guarantees at least 20 percent of proceeds, about $77 million, for improvements at Malibu sites.

“Our conclusion is that the bonds that are currently outstanding … would not be affected by separation,” committee member Tom Larmore said. But he added that dividing the funds would be complicated.

Larmore noted that much of the Measure ES money has not been allocated or issued and that, in the event of separation, the theoretical Santa Monica district would have authority over the bond. He urged the board to consider legal review of the matter.

“It’s an example of a difficult issue to work through and is going to require whoever is doing that to give that some serious thought,” he said. “In order to … preserve the original intent of the voters, you’d have to have some kind of special legislation to have the authority to do that.”

Another thorn in the side of separation is the chemical cleanup at Malibu schools, where the discovery of polychlorinated biphenyls has led to a protracted battle on which the district has spent millions of dollars for consultants and legal fees. A lawsuit on the matter recently cleared a challenge by SMMUSD.

“It’s critical to understand what lingering exposure there might be for a Santa Monica district as a result of these claims,” Larmore said. “It’s critical to have legal review of that issue.”

Officials said separation would require Malibu voters to adopt their own new parcel tax, although it is believed that the amount they would pay would be similar to what they pay now.

A vote on the parcel tax would likely accompany the possible ballot measure on separation, which is sometimes confusingly referred to as “unification.”

“Unification advocates in Malibu clearly intend to ask the voters in Malibu to do that,” committee member Paul Silvern said.

Among other potential obstacles, figuring out a system for distributing benefits to teachers who work or have worked in Malibu schools would also be difficult, and would likely require legal assistance.

Board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein wondered aloud how far the district could go in analyzing possible paths to separation without fully committing to the process.

“At what point in time do we envision, as a board, that we’re going to say politically that we’re going to move forward with unification?” he said. “There needs to be a much more certain road map here.”

Board member Ralph Mechur noted that the district has still not signed an agreement with Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, a nonprofit that has indicated it will cover costs associated with exploring separation. A district contract with law firm Dannis Woliver Kelley is contingent on that agreement, officials have said.

Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez said she had not yet been convinced to support separation and that further polling is needed.

“We probably have [the support] of the majority of those with children in the school district,” she said. “But beyond that, the others, the citizens of Malibu, those voices haven’t been heard.”

A separation subcommittee will meet with Superintendent Sandra Lyon and chief financial officer Jan Maez and report back to the school board, officials said. Board discussion will continue at a later date.

“We wouldn’t have charged the [financial oversight committee] with this if we weren’t serious,” board president Laurie Lieberman said.

She added that the board will aim to work carefully through each potential issue so a possible split doesn’t “come back in 10 years to bite one district or the other.”

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

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