The Santa Monica-Malibu school district is ready to explore a potential pathway to separation in arguably a more concrete manner than ever before.

The local Board of Education on Thursday approved detailed guidelines for upcoming negotiations between representatives from both cities as they attempt to overcome obstacles to a split.

The talks could yield a fundamental change in the trajectory of the geographically divided district, board member Jose Escarce said.

Negotiators will attempt to address any “significant adverse financial impacts” of separation, according to a district report. Topics for discussion include general budget implications, property tax issues, facility projects and millions of dollars in bond allocations.

Ongoing litigation stemming from the discovery of chemicals at Malibu schools about two years ago will likely loom large in the talks.

The board has asked negotiators to establish a framework through which the Malibu-only district “assumes responsibility for any remaining remediation of any contamination in Malibu schools and indemnifies [the remaining Santa Monica district] for any future claims arising from such remediation work or failure to undertake appropriate work,” according to the report.

One of the board’s stated objectives for the talks is dismissal of the pending lawsuit or an agreement from the plaintiffs that the Santa Monica district will be dropped from the lawsuit.

The board has also directed negotiators to come up with procedures for revisiting issues after a potential split.

Agreements born of the talks will require approval by the negotiating teams, the school board and Malibu City Council, and possible separation would still likely take several years to execute. The negotiators’ final written report will be made available to the public prior to board discussion.

Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez, who in the past has been hesitant to support the creation of a Malibu-only district, voted in favor of the negotiations. But she called the talks “premature,” saying it might be better to seek advice from the Los Angeles County Office of Education first.

“I would hate to see all this negotiation and all this energy shifted or changed based on LACOE’s response,” she said. “If we come in with a negotiated plan, is LACOE going to accept what we do?”

Board member Craig Foster said the talks will allow for conversations between people who are intimately familiar with the local district.

“The goal here is for us, as best we can, to find the solution that suits our communities within our control,” he said.

Choosing negotiators

Superintendent Sandra Lyon and Malibu City Manager Jim Thorsen have each been asked to appoint up to three people to their respective Santa Monica and Malibu negotiating teams.

The school board will confirm Lyon’s choices, and board members said they don’t want any elected officials to serve in those roles.

An impartial, mutually approved arbitrator will facilitate the talks. The costs of the arbitrator’s services will be split by SMMUSD and Malibu education activists.

Negotiators will likely seek guidance from a budget consultant, lawyers with experience in bonds and environmental issues and county education department staff. Advocates for Malibu Public Schools is expected to pay for those services.

Negotiations will take place over a 60-day period with an option for a 30-day extension pending board approval, according to the district report. The school board will hear updates on the talks at least monthly.

The negotiations will build on previous separation discussions, which have been brewing in the district for years and which have garnered ample board attention in recent months.

In July, the financial oversight committee reported to the board that it found no deal-breakers to separation in its examination of projected budgets for both theoretical districts. But when district staff came forward in August with a new report on state funding, the committee was asked to revisit its analysis.

Taking new data into account, the committee concluded in its Nov. 19 report to the board that the financial portrait of a Santa Monica district would be “significantly worse” than that of the current district.

Malibu advocates contended that separation remains feasible, asserting that the committee’s findings were incomplete and misleading. That’s when the board decided it should outline substantive steps for separation talks.

“No one will be able to say we didn’t take this seriously,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said.