Chart: Even if the County approves the split, the proposal has a long road. Courtesy image

County officials have advanced a petition to create a standalone Malibu school district and will make a decision on the proposal in about six months.

At a virtual meeting on Sept. 19, the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization agreed with a recent staff report that said more time was needed to evaluate Malibu’s proposal to split the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District and the Committee approved the decision on an 8-2 vote.

The Saturday meeting followed the release of a preliminary report that said the proposal submitted by the City of Malibu as written today, failed to meet eight of nine conditions. Proposals should meet standards for enrollment, community identity, division of property, racial equity, cost to the State, educational outcomes, infrastructure costs, property values and ongoing fiscal health.

At the Saturday hearing, each side had a chance to reiterate their longstanding arguments while addressing the recent report.

During their minute pitch, Malibu Councilwoman Karen Farrer said the SMMUSD Board was not interested in hearing Malibu concerns and that Malibu was too small a voting block to be of influence in district elections relegating them to second class status.

“Any one of you would reasonably expect a school district’s leadership to try to address the ongoing concerns with the quality of a child’s academic program,” she said. “That is not the case here in Malibu. We would not be here today if we saw any other path to resolution. In fact, we’ve tried several times and the needs of Malibu’s students and community continued to go unmet because the district is not interested in finding a remedy to this situation. That is why we have come to you to get this done.”

Proponents of the split said the District’s response to environmental concerns at Malibu schools was unacceptable and cited ongoing trauma caused by the Woolsey fire as significant evidence the District does not understand the community. Callers also said the lack of attention to toxic materials at Malibu schools showed the district’s neglect.

In response to the staff report that said the current proposal failed eight of nine separation conditions, Malibu officials said many of the failed conditions would be remedied with additional study. They said the district’s enrollment challenges are not large enough to torpedo the proposal and that they are a distinct community with no common interests with Santa Monica.

“After years of attempts to separate and endless negotiations with no progress Malibu residents have had enough,” said Farrer. “Because we are elected by our constituents and have a responsibility to respond to their needs and priorities, the Malibu City Council has directed the city to submit this petition for reorganization. A tentative recommendation from the county committee today would simply bring our petition into the typical reorganization process whereby the county committee will hold public hearings in both Santa Monica and Malibu. At that time, you will have the opportunity to assess the feasibility of reorganization, using the nine criteria set forth by the Department of Education, when there is sufficient data available to actually make such findings.”

In their presentation, district officials said the current proposal simply doesn’t meet the legal criteria for separation and continued study amounted to a waste of time. David Soldani, an attorney for the district, said it would be unfair to require the District to continue to expend time on the proposal given the ongoing challenges educators face at this time as their proposal failed to meet the conditions under the County’s recent study.

“We know it, your staff knows it, outside organizations dedicated to equity and fairness note, you, the county committee have the discretion to deny the City Council petition at this stage,” he said. “The ability to deny is explicitly set forth in the education code. And I would submit that denial, at this stage is appropriate, because the underlying structure and facts of the city council petition, are not going to change during the next 60 days, or even during the next year, subjecting the district and its families to more process, and more hearings, based upon this flawed petition is a waste of the committee, and the district’s time and resources, both of which are in dangerously low supply right now.”

SMMUSD Board member John Kean said data was readily available today to judge Malibu’s proposal as insufficient.

“There are no data driven reasons to move the petition to a public hearing process,” he said. “60 more days will not change these facts, it will not lead to new numbers being discovered. There are only political concerns to appease. For this reason, I respectfully request the committee deny the city council’s petition, as it does not and will never be able to meet this criteria.”

District Superintendent Ben Drati said the proposal would set a dangerous precedent and undermine broader pushes for equity in the community.

“As a district superintendent, charged with acting in the best interest of students for the entire district. I personally implore you to deny the city council’s petition now, rather than drag the district through more hearings in process, when we are doing all we can to focus on returning students to campus in a safe and sustainable way,” he said.

Committee members ultimately voted to continue studying the proposal as their previously generated report lacked enough information to accurately judge several criteria.

Committee chair Cherise Moore said a vote to approve or deny the proposal will occur in March of 2022 once staff has had an opportunity to answer their questions.

“The expectation is that at that time, there will be no ‘mays’, there will be no possibilities, there will be no need for further information,” she said. “We need everything done at that time.”

Two committee members opposed the motion and instead voted to terminate the Malibu proposal immediately.

Commissioners Barry Snell and Susan Solomon said they doubted additional time would provide the information needed to reverse the preliminary results.

Snell said both parties had ample time to provide robust information prior to the preliminary report and he said the formal proposal should be rejected in favor of a negotiated settlement.

“I’d like to make a motion to deny the petition and ask the individuals on both sides to go back to the table to negotiate this and give us a pathway to be able to ultimately see these two districts to come up with a plausible, economical, and ethical decision,” he said.

Commissioner Donald LaPlante said rejecting the proposal at this time was foolish as it could be reactivated with a simple community vote.

“Turning down the city of Malibu petition and ending this preliminary part of the process will simply force the proponents into a 10% citizens petition which I have no doubt would happen,” he said. “I believe all the parties would be better served by taking this petition through the process to a conclusion, and will be more advantageous to all than to merely force a restart of the process and be back to this exact same place six nine or 12 months from now.”

Before taking a vote, the Commission listened to about an hour of argument on each side.

Following the hearing, District officials continued to criticize the Malibu proposal for lacking equity as they said it revolves around an inequitable distribution of financial resources that would cause irreparable harm to students in both Santa Monica and Malibu.

“As a district, we are not optimistic about any major developments occurring during this additional review period as we have been in talks for years with the City and the City of Malibu’s position has remained consistent in seeking an inequitable distribution of financial resources,” said Kean. “Our district will continue fighting for the students of both communities and urge education leaders in Malibu to inject themselves into the city’s process in order to assist them in understanding why their proposal is flawed.”

Malibu officials credited community input for helping advance the proposal.

“I want to thank all the Malibu parents, students and community members that participated in the County hearing, shared their experiences with SM-MUSD and voiced their support for school district separation, and I want to convey our appreciation to the County Committee for its attention to this critical community issue. We are all very pleased with their decision to move the City’s petition forward,” said Malibu Mayor Paul Grisanti.

The proposal will now receive a more substantive review with additional information requested of both parties. A third community hearing will be held before Nov. 17, most likely via an online platform due to ongoing covid restrictions.

If approved by the County, the proposal would enter a years long review by the state and could culminate in a public vote.

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...