Karen Farrer

The hyphen in the title of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District says it all. That punctuation mark symbolizes the uneasy tension of trying to connect two distinctly different, non-contiguous communities into a single school system. It also reminds us in Malibu that we are often an afterthought for Santa-Monica-centric school district decision-makers when it comes to educating our community’s children. We are out of sight, and frequently out of mind.

It is time we let each community govern its own schools and focus on its own needs and aspirations. On Saturday, April 17 we are presenting to the Los Angeles County Office of Education Committee on District Reorganization our petition to split from SM-MUSD and form our own school district. Our feasibility study shows convincingly that both Santa Monica and Malibu will benefit by being separate.

Ironically, SM-MUSD could never have been joined under current state law in the first place. The law now says, “No school district may be newly formed or reorganized so that any portion of it is completely separated by territory of another school district.” Santa Monica and Malibu are geographically separated by 22 miles along Pacific Coast Highway. You have to leapfrog parts of Los Angeles Unified School District to get from Malibu schools to the district headquarters in Santa Monica. It makes no sense. It would be like Santa Monica annexing Downey with only the 25 miles on several freeways to connect them.

So, why are Santa Monica leaders allowing this archaic system to disadvantage yet another generation of Malibu students? The answer is simple . . . money.

The SM-MUSD Board of Education and administration have gone on record saying they agree that it is time for separation to occur. The only hitch is that they want to hold the property tax base of Malibu hostage for fifty years in exchange for acceding to our demand for local control. They know that Malibu home values will keep going up and they want to capture the growing property tax revenue in our community to prop up their school district budget. Keep in mind, Malibu only has 14% of the students in SM-MUSD, but we contribute one-third of the $90 million in property tax revenue in the district budget.

SM-MUSD receives approximately $50 million in Other Local Funding (grants, sales taxes, rental income, redevelopment funds, and parent/business donations, etc.) each year beyond state education funding and property tax sources. That makes up almost 35% of their General Fund Budget. Santa Monica will be able to retain these funds in separation.

Sadly, SM-MUSD advocates are trying to change the narrative to vilify Malibu as an elitist White enclave ready to abandon children of color and socio-economic disadvantage. This is a well-worn scare tactic designed to disregard the facts. The SM-MUSD administration has been feeding the community a steady diet of misinformation and faulty projections about school funding to fuel emotional push-back to our petition.

They and others are presuming that if Malibu splits from Santa Monica it would automatically decrease per pupil funding causing a negative impact on efforts to bring equity and equality to their community’s diverse student population. That is simply not true. Separation would increase per pupil funding for BOTH districts.

SM-MUSD also falsely claims that we walked away from negotiating a separation agreement. That also is not true. Rather than engaging in good faith negotiations, SM-MUSD made a preposterous demand suggesting the transfer of billions of dollars of Malibu tax base into Santa Monica schools in perpetuity. Even now, they have refused to publicly announce or consider our best & final offer, which was transmitted to them in early March and ensures a tax-sharing formula if Santa Monica USD per pupil funding dropped below current levels.

Frankly, it is insulting to imply that Malibu does not care about the impact of separation on all students in both communities. We do. Contrary to the rhetoric of the SM-MUSD advocates, the demographics of each set of schools will stay the same. The percentage of low socio-economic, English language learners, foster, and homeless students in each community would not change under separation. Malibu students will continue to attend Malibu schools and Santa Monica students will continue to attend Santa Monica schools.

If you do the math correctly, the facts speak for themselves. I recommend that you visit our City of Malibu website (www.malibucity.org/musd) for more details before making a snap judgement about separation.

Malibu was added to Santa Monica USD over 150 years ago as a convenience for a single large rural landowner. That antiquated unification is clearly an inconvenience today. Malibu needs and deserves its own unified school district. It’s time.

Karen Farrer has been a school district and community volunteer for over 27 years, past executive board member of the SM-M PTA Council, and former member of the SM-MUSD Facilities District Advisory Committee. She is deeply involved in many Malibu community organizations. She was elected to the Malibu City Council in 2018.