Negotiations are moving forward on the possibility of splitting the Santa Monica-Malibu school district into two distinct entities, but not without a series of bumps in the road.

The committee assigned by the local Board of Education to explore separation was scheduled to meet Tuesday, but the summit was canceled because the pro-separation Malibu group that agreed in principle to cover some costs had not yet signed an outstanding agreement. The contract has since been completed.

The snag in talks came as the district undergoes a transition at the highest level of its administration. Interim co-superintendents Chris King and Sylvia Rousseau have taken over for Sandra Lyon, who started July 1 as chief of the Palm Springs Unified School District.

Santa Monica negotiators said at the school board meeting June 29 that they expect Advocates for Malibu Public Schools leadership to sign a contract with Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch LLP, the law firm designated by committee members to assist in discussions on bond finances and other issues. AMPS has taken care of the agreement.

The committee is enlisting the help of several consultants to facilitate talks and provide legal advice.

According to Tom Larmore, one of the three Santa Monica negotiators, Malibu representative Makan Delrahim was in touch with AMPS regarding the Procopio contract. The estimate for Procopio’s first assignment was reportedly about $3,000.

“They wanted some kind of comfort on how much they might be obligated to spend for legal fees,” Larmore told the school board last week.

The contractual roadblock came a few months after the Santa Monica negotiators called for a pause in talks due to the involvement of AMPS in a voting rights lawsuit in the City of Santa Monica. The group has since withdrawn from the suit.

Santa Monica negotiators were also unhappy that the plaintiffs in the elections lawsuit were being represented by attorney Kevin Shenkman, a former member of the Malibu negotiations team. Shenkman was replaced in May by Delrahim, who joins Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal and healthcare executive Manel Sweetmore on the Malibu team.

Delays and hiccups aside, Santa Monica representative Paul Silvern said the negotiators have developed good working relationships.

“The discussions have been quite cordial with good questions back and forth,” Silvern said. “We’re keeping things on a good, productive track. While it is taking longer than I think any of us wish … we have high hopes of coming to equitable resolution of these issues.”

The committee’s scheduled July 14 meeting at Malibu City Hall is expected to include discussions with School Services of California regarding budgetary issues. Santa Monica representative Debbie Mulvaney said a district’s categorization as a basic-aid or minimum-state-aid entity can affect its finances.

Legal issues related to bond money will be addressed July 26.

The Aug. 2 meeting at SMMUSD headquarters will cover environmental liability, Larmore said. The district has spent millions of dollars on consultants and legal fees since the discovery of chemicals at Malibu schools more than two years ago.

“We may have some differences of opinion on the problems and how to solve them,” Larmore said, “but we anticipate a cordial relationship in getting to that point.”

jeff@www.smdp.com