County regulators are recommending a proposal to split the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District advance to the next stage of analysis following a preliminary report that concluded eight of nine conditions for a split were unmet. 

According to staff, many of the unmet conditions were the result of poor or lacking data and further study is needed to make final determinations. 

The Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization heard initial arguments on the split earlier this year and a report from the Committee’s staff issued last week said the proposal failed to meet eight of nine standards as it stands today. 

Minimum enrollment standards

A new district should have at least 1,501 students and the report cites a shrinking population as a primary factor Malibu fails to meet the rule. However, the report states more study may be necessary to evaluate the impact of temporary population loss due to wildfires and the impacts of remote learning on school enrollment. 

“Because there is a strong indication that current enrollment in Malibu area schools would be fewer than 1,501 students, staff finds this condition, at this time, not substantially met,” said the report. 

Community Identity

Districts should be organized on the basis of “substantial community identity” and regulators said that while Malibu is a distinct city, its educational history has always been entwined with Santa Monica making it impossible to justify a new district on identity grounds. 

“Proposals to form unified school districts are requests for changes to permanent boundaries. They should only be undertaken based on evidence of a compelling reason to make such changes related to educational concerns and guided by the mandated nine conditions of review. No such compelling reason has been presented in this case to date that cannot be mitigated by the current collaborative practices of the Santa Monica-Malibu USD,” said the report. “The implication that this proposal should be approved simply because the City of Malibu wants it, because they feel more a part of their city than their school district, should not be remedied by a process as serious and with such significant consequences as forming a new USD and taking territory from a high-performing current USD, especially given the potential fiscal impacts. Therefore, it is recommended that the County Committee deem this condition to not be substantially met at this time.”

Equitable division of property

The proposal must result in an equitable division of property and facilities for the two newly split districts and officials said too few details were available to meet these criteria at this point. Regulators cited an independent report that concluded the two sides would not agree on a split and an arbitrator or board of arbitrators would be needed to determine an equitable split. 

Racial equity

Education of students in an integrated environment and will not promote racial or ethnic discrimination or segregation The Committee said that regardless of enrollment numbers, it was clear a Malibu district would be vastly more White than a Santa Monica district and that splitting the district would likely violate the requirement. 

“Indicators are that, given the ethnic/racial shift in student population should a Malibu USD be created, there may be discriminatory impacts on students. Therefore, it is recommended that the County Committee deem this condition to not be substantially met at this time,” said the report. 

Costs to the State

Splitting the district should not create a situation that requires additional funding from the State for either party. In this case, the analysis questions if both districts would remain “basic aid” meaning they derive their funding from local taxes, rather than State sources. 

Regulators referenced the previous uncertainty over terms of a financial split as the reason this condition was not met at this time. 

“Absent another negotiated settlement, it is not clear if both resulting districts could maintain basic aid status or if a resulting Santa Monica USD would need additional support from the state. Therefore, it is recommended that the County Committee deem this condition to be not substantially met at this time,” said the report. 

Continued quality of education

The terms of the condition require the proposed reorganization will continue to promote sound education performance and will not significantly disrupt the educational programs in the districts affected by the proposed reorganization.

The report said it lacked enough data to say the proposal met the condition. 

“At this time, it cannot be determined whether the creation of a Malibu USD would negatively impact the ability of the resulting Santa Monica USD to promote sound education (in terms of its ability to finance current programs and educational offerings). Until it is clear how this reorganization would be worked out on a fiscal basis, the impact on educational programs is not known,” it said. “Therefore, it is recommended that the County Committee deem this condition to be not substantially met at this time.”

Insignificant school facilities costs

Facility costs cover infrastructure like buildings and equipment necessary to run a district. The report again references poor data on future enrollment as a block to determining if the proposal can meet these criteria. 

“Given yet another layer of uncertainty about what a Malibu USD would need, how many students it is likely to have, and what the workout cost would be for the facilities it seeks to acquire from the Santa Monica-Malibu USD, it is not possible to know if additional school facilities costs would be indicated by this reorganization. Further, it is not possible to know at this time if the resulting Santa Monica USD would have school facilities costs based on its loss of enrollment or other fiscal losses,” it said. 

Proposal is not designed to increase property values

While a proposal to create a new district can increase property values, property values cannot be the primary motivating factor. Regulators said as Malibu already has higher property values than Santa Monica, it met the condition. 

“It can be reasonably projected that most residents of the City of Malibu already have higher property values than most residents in Santa Monica, but there is no evidence that a significant increase in property values represents the primary motive for the proposal. Therefore, it is preliminarily recommended that the County Committee deem this condition to be substantially met at this time.”

Continued sound fiscal management

According to the report, the County Committee should consider financial trends of the affected districts and revenue gains and/or losses that may result from the proposed reorganization. This information will be used to evaluate the proposal’s effect on the viability of the reorganized districts to operate educational programs and to assess any negative impact to the fiscal management or status of the reorganized district(s).

“It is preliminarily concluded that this reorganization would negatively affect the fiscal management or status of the resulting Santa Monica USD, should it be approved. Therefore, it is recommended that the County Committee deem this condition to be not substantially met at this time.”

While staff concludes the proposal does not meet eight of the nine criteria, the report still recommends the proposal advance to the next stage of analysis as many of the failed criteria require additional information and study to make a final decision. The report also states the staff analysis is not the final determination. 

“The County Committee may find all, a majority or some of the conditions met and still vote to deny the proposal. Similarly, the County Committee may find that none, few or some of the conditions are met, yet still has authority to vote to approve the proposal. The County Committee’s authority lies in its assessment of what is best for this specific situation and proposal, both in regard to individual Conditions and in the totality of the proposal, and its overall assessment that the Nine Conditions are substantially met.”

Staff said a negotiated settlement is still the preferred resolution. 

“It is clear that additional information is needed for the County Committee to complete a full analysis of this proposal to form a Malibu USD, should it approve moving this proposal into the regular review process. It is also clear that, though they have hit roadblocks numerous times, the City of Malibu and the Santa Monica-Malibu USD still have the opportunity to negotiate and to come to the County Committee with a joint solution,” said the report. “A negotiated solution that honors the needs and concerns of both parties remains the best recommendation.”