Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

Malibu is continuing to pursue a separation from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and, as is often the case in divorce, relationships are becoming strained, in this instance through an argumentative letter exchange.

On Nov. 2, Malibu City Manager Reva Feldman sent a letter to SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati rebutting his claims that Malibu abandoned collaboration with the District and does not support educational equity.

Malibu has sought local control of its schools for around 20 years, but the debate was reignited on Oct. 12 when Malibu City Council voted to reinstate a separation petition to L.A. County Office of Education. On Oct. 28, Drati sent a letter to Feldman criticizing this decision and asking Malibu to return to the negotiation table.

The concept of educational equity is at the crux of the separation debate. It is agreed that if the District splits, Malibu will need to redistribute some of its property taxes to fund a new Santa Monica school district, but SMMUSD does not support Malibu’s proposed redistribution model.

“Malibu has chosen to move forward with an approach that would separate SMMUSD into two very unequal districts,” said Drati in his Oct. 28 letter. “Equity and fairness appear to have disappeared from the formula.”

Malibu’s proposed plan results in both newly created Districts ending up better funded, but while the Santa Monica district would have incremental financial gains, the Malibu district would have immense gains.

“It is correct that per pupil funding for the two future school districts will not be the same, but that is the case across all of the school districts in the State,” said Feldman in her Nov 2. response. “On a per pupil basis, the new school districts will end up with higher funding than the current SMMUSD.”

Financial analysts project that in 2023 the current joint district would have $14,264 in per pupil funding, whereas under Malibu’s separation plan a Santa Monica district would have $14,554 and a Malibu district would have $25,998.

“For SM to use “equity” as their argument is narcissistic and hypocritical,” said Craig Foster, former president of Advocates for Malibu Public Schools and SMMUSD board member. “Either/both/all of these scenarios begin and end with Santa Monica/SMMUSD/Malibu all having 30%+ more per pupil revenues than 99.9% of California’s school districts, the vast majority of which have far more challenging student populations that, if we truly believed in “equity,” deserve/need the money far more than either/both of these wealthy towns.”

The District previously proposed a separation agreement where Malibu would redistribute over $250 million in property taxes yearly to Santa Monica for the next fifty years. Malibu City Council unanimously rejected this plan.

Aside from the issue of equity, Malibu also took issue with Drati’s claim that Malibu abandoned collaboration with District negotiations.

Feldman’s Nov. 2 letter points to letters sent to the District on April 21 and June 21 as evidence Malibu was trying to continue negotiations. These letters asked the District to clarify its position on parcel tax legislation and the redistribution of Malibu property taxes.

“We never heard back from the District about either issue, so it seems a bit disingenuous to claim that the City (of Malibu) ‘abandoned our collaboration’,” stated Feldman.

Some Malibu residents feel the District was the first party to abandon negotiations back in 2017 when they rejected a separation proposal that the Malibu Unification Negotiation Committee spent almost two years developing.

“By creating the MUNC, filling it with the most respected local residents chosen evenly along the district divide, letting them work around 14 months toward a specific predefined vision of what a “fair” financial split looked like, for those six people to unanimously find a solution they strongly believed achieved their stated goal, and then for SMMUSD to walk away from that solution (and that goal) unilaterally is the definition of bad faith,” said Foster.

The parties appear to be at a deadlock where the District wishes to return to the negotiation table and Malibu is set on continuing to pursue a separation through LACOE.