Courtesy image.

The Santa Monica Malibu School Board has voted six to one to approve the $21 million purchase of the DoubleTree office building on 1717 4th St. to become the new District headquarters.

During the Oct. 15 meeting, some members of the public questioned the appropriateness of buying an expensive property during the pandemic without prior public discussion, while Board members said this is a unique and financially prudent opportunity that is too good to pass on.

This purchase, which has been under closed session discussion for almost a year, will unite all District departments under one roof adjacent to the Santa Monica High School Campus. It will be financed by Certificates of Participation and Redevelopment Agency funding and not deplete the General Fund. The District plans to lease its current headquarters at 1651 16th St and eventually direct revenues to the General Fund.

“It’s an opportunity and this is the last chance we’re going to get to do this. When somebody else buys this building it’s gone, and if we need to move headquarters, who knows where that’s going to be or when that’s going to be. It can’t possibly be as convenient as this, which is actually on land we own on the Samohi campus,” said Board member Craig Foster.

The District owns the land that the DoubleTree office is located on and is purchasing the building and accompanying parking spaces. Due to pandemic related setbacks and the extensive research and consultation process undertaken by the District, the deadline for a decision has been pushed back multiple times. According to Carey Upton, SMMUSD Chief Operations Officer, the District has used up all extensions available and was at risk of losing the opportunity if the Board failed to approve the purchase.

The urgency with which the decision on the action item was being made, without being first brought as a discussion item for the public to weigh in on, caused some discontent.

“I think that you will find that many of the people listening to the meeting tonight will find it mind boggling that you were making a transaction this large as an action item without bringing it before the public. I know that you guys may have been looking at it for a long time, but you are a small group of people responsible to the public, and it is our funds and our land. You owe it to us to bring it before the public to review,” said Nikki Kolhoff.

While almost every key Board decision is presented for public discussion, real estate negotiations are allowed to be conducted privately under the Brown Act. After the DoubleTree approached the District with the purchase opportunity the District held discussions in private to try and achieve the best deal possible.

“I want to reiterate that this is an anomaly. It’s not the norm that we do deliberations in private except for in areas that the Brown Act allows for, and this is simply one of those,” said Board member Laurie Lieberman. I was skeptical at first about this, but I’ve been satisfied by the answers that we’ve been given and by the diligence we’ve done as a board and that our staff and our consultants have done for us. I want to support this and say that I really think it’s a smart decision.”

Oscar de la Torre was the only board member to vote against the purchase. He sought a two week extension on the vote and a discussion of other options for future use of the current 16th street headquarters beyond leasing it as commercial real estate.

“It’s almost a $30 million project and it’s something that we don’t really need right now,” said de la Torre. “No one has said we need this; it’s almost like a want and we’ve got to respect the taxpayers.”