Districts: Under the proposal, the northern half of Malibu and Sunset Park would become a single voting block. SMDP Image

In the face of pressure from a small group of stakeholders in Malibu and Santa Monica, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is set to consider a move toward district-based voting in 2022.

On Thursday, Dec. 16, the school board asked council to return with a proposal that could include a series of public hearings to discuss the formation of voting districts in which various neighborhoods could each vote for one representative to sit on the school board, rather than each voter selecting various candidates from across the SMMUSD. The decision was not a confirmation that districts would be enacted; rather, it was the first step in what could be a months- or years-long process of implementing voting districts.

During the hearing, board members discussed a November petition filed by Santa Monica and Malibu residents to enact their own map dividing SMMUSD into seven voting districts. SMMUSD attorney David Soldani named the chief proponents of that petition as Jennifer deNicola (a Malibu resident), Santa Monica councilman Oscar de la Torre and Tricia Crane, chair of the Northeast Neighbors Association.

According to Soldani, Voting Rights Act advocate and attorney Kevin Shenkman delivered the petition to the LA County Office of Education in November.

The petition was initiated in response to SB 442, a California senate bill that was signed into law in July and is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022. The bill outlines new processes for creating voting districts, which includes a pathway for districts to be formed without a public vote; rather, petitioners may appeal directly to the county board of education.

“This bill would authorize the county committee, by resolution, to approve a proposal to establish trustee areas and elect governing board members using district-based elections without submitting the resolution to the electors of the district for approval,” SB 442 states. “The bill would require such a resolution to include a declaration that the change in the method of electing members of the governing board is being made in furtherance of the purposes of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.”

The bill appears designed to speed up the process of initiating district-based elections by circumventing a public vote to approve new districts.

District officials drew comparisons between the petition and the Malibu fight for school district independence.

“It’s important to note that some of the same special interests and individuals behind the one-sided unification proposal that would strip funding Santa Monica students and some of the same special interests and individuals behind the recent attempt to recall certain board members are also behind this petition,” Soldani told the board. “It is simply the latest avenue of attack against the school district from familiar sources.” In Soldani’s view, the petition, which combines western Malibu with Sunset Park and eastern Malibu with an area west of Wilshire, while creating five additional Santa Monica-only districts, represents “gerrymandered special interests.”

In response, Shenkman said at the meeting that the true “special interests” were the proponents of SB 442.

“The special interests that he’s referring to that supported this legislation was the California Teachers Association and civil rights groups,” Shenkman said. “I’m OK with those special interests.”

Shenkman is representing Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association in a voting rights lawsuit to enact district-based voting for City of Santa Monica elections. His law partner, Milton Grimes, has also threatened to sue the City of Malibu over alleged violations to the Voting Rights Act.

The LA County Office of Education rejected the petition outright, which proponents said was due to its timing, since SB 442 was not yet law. According to Shenkman, the petition will be re-submitted in early January.

The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 “prohibits an at-large method of election from being imposed or applied in a political subdivision, as defined, in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class, as defined, to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class,” according to the text of SB 442.

Some board members took umbrage with the idea that Malibu represented a “protected class,” as outlined in SB 442.

“Malibu residents, to state the obvious, do not fall within a protected class,” Board Member Laurie Lieberman said.

The board’s consensus was that, whether or not they personally believed that voting districts were necessary to the district, it was up to voters to decide.

“There’s an absence of public engagement here,” Board Vice President Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein said. “I would look forward to developing a resolution to ask the people of Santa Monica if they would prefer districts … there would be a robust, democratic–small D–conversation in the community.”

emily@smdp.com

This text was updated to reflect that Kevin Shenkman is representing Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association in a Voting Rights Act lawsuit, not Oscar de la Torre, as previously stated.