The Santa Monica-Malibu school district took another step towards possible separation last week when the local Board of Education examined the complex procedures for splitting the district.

A county education official laid out for the school board the numerous layers of review and regulation involved in the process, which has gained support among some SMMUSD stakeholders in recent months.

The presentation by Allison Deegan, regionalized business services coordinator for the L.A. County Office of Education, came as the district continues facing a slew of potential challenges, including bond allocations and centralized fundraising as well as chemical testing and cleanup.

The regional impacts would be “significant,” Deegan said of splitting the district into Santa Monica and Malibu entities.

Deegan explained that there are several ways to get the ball rolling on separation, which would likely take at least three years.

One is a petition with signatures from registered voters, and Deegan said having 10-percent participation among voters in the district could expedite the process slightly. The signatures are then vetted by county registrar officials.

Seth Jacobson, a Malibu parent and former school board candidate, was named during the meeting as an active petitioner.

The separation process can also be initiated with a majority vote by a school board or city council, Deegan said.

Those actions trigger involvement by the County Committee on School District Organization, an 11-member elected body that analyzes and makes recommendations and decisions on separation and related issues.

The county committee can initiate and review its own petition, Deegan said, but typically there’s local involvement first. She recalled one scenario in which the committee approved a voter-initiated petition despite opposition from two of the three school districts involved.

“This is often a little-known committee,” she said. “But the code gives them very broad authority.”

Meanwhile, Deegan said, the county education office offers guidance to districts while maintaining neutrality.

The timeline for separation varies from one case to another, but the county committee typically spends a year assessing the situation. It takes into account variables such as student populations, employee benefits, fiscal ramifications, real estate values, district facilities and community identity, which Deegan said is subjective and therefore often the most contested issue.

State officials usually take another two years to conduct their own studies, she said, adding that any environmental concerns would halt the lengthy process. Compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act is paramount.

Another potential obstacle is the California Voting Rights Act, which has sparked a flurry of litigation across the state in recent years. Some districts have developed trustee area schemes to make their governing bodies more ethnically representative, but Deegan said the process is often divisive and expensive.

“There’s a whole kitchen sink of issues that are intertwined,” she said. “What does unification mean for the new district? Is it sustainable? And what does it mean for the remaining district?”

jeff@www.smdp.com

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