Under the proposed split Malibu High School would become part of a Malibu Unified School District

The long awaited hearing of Malibu’s petition to form its own school district played out Saturday as a well choreographed recitation of entrenched arguments and opinions. 

County officials asked no questions of the two sides in the weekend hearing and instead received presentations of equal length before taking exactly one hour of public comment from proponents and opponents of the proposition. 

The City of Malibu has filed the petition with the Los Angeles County Office of Education asking for Malibu to be severed from Santa Monica. The concept of a split district has been debated for years and while Santa Monica officials have said they support Malibu’s independence in theory, the two sides have not been able to come to terms on finances for the two-district plan. 

Malibu has about 15 percent of the District’s total population but provides about 30 percent of revenue. Malibu officials say the economic disparity is only part of their desire and cite neglect and a lack of representation as additional reasons to secede.

“The contrast is stark with Malibu being left behind in academic facilities, activities and services,” said Malibu Mayor Mikke Pierson. “The only category where we are ahead is in the amount of property taxes we disproportionately pay to SMMUSD to enhance programs that are mostly in Santa Monica. There is one thing the city and school district agree on: separation makes sense. The only disagreement is over how to do that fairly and equitably, for both sides.”

Malibu officials accused the District of race-baiting in its community outreach and said they have made reasonable offers to keep a Santa Monica District fiscally stable. 

“Instead of seriously considering this offer, or any others placed before them, the school district has refused to compromise and continues to engage in inflammatory rhetoric,” said Malibu Councilwoman Karen Farrer. “Frankly I’m appalled and extremely disappointed that a school district would treat a segment of its own district population so poorly with an us versus them attitude. They have drawn a line in the sand of Santa Monica versus Malibu with the residents of Malibu, on the outside looking in. There is no way to recover from this. The education of our current and future students is at risk. At this point, separation is the only solution.”

District advocates said Malibu’s petition fails to meet required criteria for a split and jeopardizes quality education for students in both communities. 

SMMUSD President Jon Kean said recent declines in Malibu’s student population were due to City of Malibu policies that have created an aging population with fewer children to educate and that a standalone Malibu district would not have enough students to meet state minimums.

“So this drop in Malibu’s population is not a function of Santa Monica centric policies, the decline is accelerated by Malibu’s high property values and housing policies, with no historic commitment to affordable housing, or multifamily housing,” said Kean. “This is not a case of if you build it they will come. The students are not there anymore. They are not coming back anytime soon, regardless of what we call the school district.”

Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati said Malibu’s proposal would disenfranchise students of color. 

“You will hear how the financial proposal would disproportionately impact students of color, the majority of whom reside in Santa Monica, while simultaneously creating a homogeneous student body population in Malibu, depriving those students of the opportunity to be educated in a more diverse environment,” he said. “You have in your possession, a snapshot of the impact of the unification as currently proposed, with no discussion or plan on how to ensure that the Malibu students continue to have an opportunity to be educated in a diverse environment.”

Public comment was pre-divided into pro and anti camps with each limited to a total of one hour. Speakers reiterated a variety of arguments previously expressed in the official documents and in some cases disputed assertions of the other side. 

Pro-split speakers from both cities said the District mismanaged its budget and needs Malibu’s cash to overcome bad spending decisions. Anti-split speakers, including institutions like local unions and the ACLU, said Malibu’s petition endangers the education of minority youth. 

No decision was made on Saturday nor did the Commission ask specific questions of either side. 

The county will hear the proposal again in June. At that time they will receive a county analysis of the report and take an initial vote. 

If they vote against the proposal, Malibu’s effort is over. However, if they advance the proposal it would enter the regular review process including multiple local public hearings, a staff feasibility study, environmental analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act, or sequence and an election. This process may be extended significantly if there is an appeal of the county committee’s decision to the State Board of Education.

editor@smdp.com

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...