Can Santa Monica-Malibu schools function without using any pesticides?

The district’s policy on pest control now includes that stated goal, a lofty aspiration in the aftermath of a flea infestation at a local elementary campus that required an army of chemicals to eradicate.

SMMUSD is aiming to follow through on its commitment by focusing on long-term prevention efforts, including better monitoring and maintenance, although officials acknowledged the barriers to eliminating pesticide use altogether.

The district will consider using pesticides “only after careful monitoring indicates that they are needed” and will use chemicals “that pose the least possible hazard and are effective in a manner that minimizes risks to people, property and the environment,” reads the updated SMMUSD policy, which the local Board of Education approved at its meeting Dec. 17.

The district has committed to a ban on anticoagulant rodenticides since early 2014, according to Jan Maez, the district’s chief financial officer, but officials expressed interest in formalizing SMMUSD best practices more generally.

“It’s something we believed we should put in policy,” Maez said.

Acting facilities director Carey Upton urged the board to consider finding a new contractor for pest control, a process that could take several months. He said the district should expect to spend as much as $60,000 annually on thorough pest management, more than double the roughly $28,000 it currently spends each year. Prevention work across the district would also likely require a one-time expenditure of about $120,000, he said.

Board member Jose Escarce said he supported allocating money for more comprehensive solutions.

“It would be hypocritical to demand [integrated pest management] and not provide the resources,” he said.

Upton said the district needs more help with environmental compliance and recommended the hiring of an additional staffer in the facilities division to work on related issues. But, he added, effective pest control also hinges on the actions of students and other members of SMMUSD school communities.

“We’re not going to get even near this goal if, every day after lunch, the place is strewn with trash,” Upton said. “As long as we’re providing food and a great environment for the pest, we’re going to have pests. We’re going to have to work our way through how to get everyone on board with this idea … that the food you just dropped on the ground might force us to use a pesticide that could end up back in your system.”

When pest control came up for discussion in October, board members sought to update the district’s policy with a stated goal of not using pesticides, insecticides or rodenticides. Their conversations were fueled in part by a flea infestation at Roosevelt Elementary School, where many classrooms were treated with a variety of pesticides when non-toxic alternatives were deemed ineffective.

“When we sent out the first notice [about the infestation], we received emails from parents who were very concerned about us using any form of pesticide,” Upton said. But as the severity of the problem escalated, “we got more than a dozen emails from people asking us why we haven’t closed the school, tented the entire thing and nuked the fleas out of existence.”

The district has seen a rise in ants, spiders, roaches and fleas since it stopped regular perimeter spraying of pesticides about two years, according to Upton. He said the district doesn’t have a strong command of non-toxic pesticide options and added that preventive pesticide treatments are “a pretty good idea.”

Upton noted that Pepperdine University has stopped using most rodenticides but that it regularly treats cafeterias, dormitories and other areas with food waste.

“It is a very good aspirational goal,” he said of the new SMMUSD language on pest control. “But we’re not yet at a place, and products are not at a place, to go to non-use of pesticides.”