Superintendent: Dr. Drati supports the idea of splitting Malibu and Santa Monica but opposes a split based on currently proposed terms. Brennon Dixson

Santa Monica Parents, students and stakeholders of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District gathered across from Will Rogers Learning Community this week to reiterate positions on splitting the district into Santa Monica and Malibu specific organizations.

The rally came ahead of an upcoming hearing with the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Committee on School District Organization to discuss the proposal. The City of Malibu has formally requested the hearing as an initial step in the “unification” process that would cleave the district in two and while Santa Monica officials have said they support the idea of splitting up, they oppose the specifics of the current push.

Superintendent Ben Drati, City Councilmember Kristin McCowan and Board President Jon Kean were a few of the familiar faces and families out at the rally, which was held to allow members of the SMMUSD community a chance to share their feelings on the split between Malibu and Santa Monica schools.

“We’re about to go in front of LACOE to oppose the petition on April 17 and it will be a community function. So, Malibu folks will be there and Santa Monica folks will be there to plead their case,” Drati said after Wednesday’s event. “So, what we essentially wanted to say is we do not oppose separation; we want separation to occur. We actually feel that there’s a mechanism to do it but it just happened Malibu walked away from the table when we thought we were close to an agreement.”

Malibu officials dispute the notion they ended negotiations and say the Board was unresponsive to their attempts to resolve a legal dispute over parcel tax funding. The Malibu contingent say Santa Monica officials have at best neglected the needs of their community.

“This is the moment and it comes exactly when we need it most,” Malibu’s only representative on the SMMUSD School Board, Craig Foster, wrote to the Malibu Times in response to a request for comment on the upcoming hearing. “Malibu schools have been battered by the district’s unconscionable response to PCBs [toxins found in school buildings]; its utter lack of response to the Woolsey Fire and the terrible damage it did to our entire community, including widespread tragedy and the displacement of families, students, and teachers; and their similar indifference and inattention to the drain on Malibu students caused by the closing of our schools even as all of Malibu’s neighboring schools remained open throughout the year of COVID. The residents’ voices, their stories, their experiences are crucial to allowing the [LA] County Office of Education to hear for themselves all the reasons Malibu has sought local control of our schools for so long, and why Santa Monica is a poor master and must go.”

Drati said he’s still holding out hope that the two sides will return to the negotiating table between now and April 17.

“But there’s no way I can agree to or endorse something that’s going to leave one set of students harmed versus another. Those are all my students,” Drati said. “I need to protect the Malibu students as well as they need to protect the Santa Monica students.”

McCowan agreed, stating during her time at the podium that the Santa Monica City Council also wants what is best for all students in Santa Monica and Malibu. But, as it stands, what the city of Malibu is putting forward is not what’s best for all students; instead, she said Malibu’s plan sets their schools and their students up for success, and if approved as is would be deeply damaging to Santa Monica students.

“The Santa Monica City Council is not opposed to separation. I want to be very clear about that. We are opposed however to any plan that is unfair and unjust to Santa Monica students and families,” McCowan said. “Right now, we are beginning our recovery efforts in earnest. And while we have a lot of work to do. Santa Monica’s future post-COVID is bright. This is a time when we should be focused on supporting our schools, our students and our families and our teachers as they come to the classroom.”

Much of the conflict over splitting the district has stemmed from revenues. Malibu as a community would bring in more money than Santa Monica and the two sides have been at odds as to a fair distribution of income. Proposals have ranged from 10 to 50 years worth of subsidies based on varying levels of service or per-student funding.

Drati said he had hoped to resolve the issues after reopening schools but that the district has been forced to adapt to Malibu’s timetable after the City of Malibu reinstated an official request with county regulators.

“I was disappointed by it. I thought we’d address the school closures, then we’d have time to talk about unification,” he said. “But they went forward and said, ‘Nope, we want to reinstate the petition that was originally put forward,’ and then that necessitated a response from us. And that’s what you’re seeing.”

Drati said he wants to be a superintendent who gives the people what they want but he also feels all students should be provided the opportunity for success and the current petition does not allow for that.

“It’s an important issue for both Santa Monica and Malibu, and so I’m hoping during this process that we will come up with something that can work for both communities or communities,” he said. “We were so close, and I’m hoping they’ll hear my plea to come back and have a conversation.”

While the two sides show no signs of coming to terms, they both agree that community involvement is important.

“If you care about Santa Monica students, raise your voice and reject Malibu’s current proposal, and support a more responsible timeline that sets students up for success — not just today, but for generations to come,” McCowan said during the rally. “All of you out there can attend the LACOE committee meeting on Saturday, April 17, at 9 a.m., or you can write in. More information will be posted in the coming week on LACOE.edu.”

Foster is hoping for a different outcome, but also wants people to have a say.

“It is incredibly important that every Malibu resident with a story to tell and/or a desire for a locally controlled public school district participate in the city’s outreach,” Foster urged in his message to The Malibu Times. “This is our moment to finally be heard, to finally present our case to the LA County authorities who can end this crisis.”

brennon@smdp.com