Malibu: Plans for Malibu High School could be derailed by a request to delay the process. Courtesy image

Malibu staff request to delay proceeding could cause “irreparable delay” in $160 million project to rebuild Malibu High School, district COO warns.

Neither Santa Monica nor Malibu are accustomed to speedy construction projects. Taking into account an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies; complicated federal, state, county and municipal rules; well-organized and civically engaged citizen groups; seven-, eight-, and nine-digit dollar amounts; and challenging topographical and geological environment, the timeline for most projects to go from inception to completion is almost uniformly a multiyear slog.

But in the case of the $160 million Malibu High School (MHS) campus remodel, there could be another factor at play: the rocky relationship between the Santa Monica school district and the City of Malibu.

At its most recent meeting on Thursday night, Jan. 13, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education — following a request from Malibu City staff — delayed approving long-awaited plans to remodel the MHS campus, and instead voted to conduct personal outreach to Malibu city leadership, essentially with the goal of clearing the air between the two governmental bodies.

The conversation began as the school board conducted a hearing to approve the environmental impact report (EIR) for a four-phase campus remodel project at MHS, which Malibu taxpayers first approved by a wide margin in 2018’s $195 million Measure M bond.

Citing a desire for Malibu’s high school and middle schools (which have shared a campus since 1992) to have “unique and separate identities” — together with a pressing need to “remove hazardous buildings and structures” known to include polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs — the district set about thereafter developing a site plan that would reroute school buses; update facilities, particularly the school’s aging theater and pool; and otherwise bring the campus into the 21st century.

In 2019, the campus plan was completed.

By 2020, the district signaled it was preparing an EIR to begin tackling the project in earnest. That report was completed in the fall of 2021, at which point a public comment period opened and public meetings were conducted to bring the community up to speed on proposed plans at the 87-acre site, which will hold classes for about 460 MHS students.

At the time, public agencies including the City of Malibu, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, and LA County sheriff’s, fire, and public works departments weighed in with questions and concerns.

But whereas presenters at Thursday’s meeting reported other agencies were satisfied with their correspondence with the district, Malibu sent two staff representatives to request a delay in proceedings.

One of Malibu’s two separate requests came from LaTanya Kirk Carter, who is on the team negotiating Malibu’s intended separation from the SMMUSD. Kirk Carter stated that her team was “concerned, though, that the EIR has some incompleteness, in that it does not contemplate a separate Malibu Unified School District.” The four-phased EIR does not include any area where a contemplated Malibu Unified School District headquarters would be located, which Kirk Carter called a “glaring omission.”

The other delay request came from Malibu planner Reneka Brooks, who read a letter from Planning Director Richard Mollica. Mollica’s letter stated in part that Malibu requested a delay due to insufficient time to review responses to Malibu’s concerns, which appear in the current, updated EIR.

“The City was made aware of the final EIR this past Monday, January the 10th, 2022, and does not have sufficient time to assess the adequacy of their response,” Mollica’s letter read. “However, after conducting a cursory review of the school district’s responses to our comments, most concerns remain unresolved.”

Project staff stated the final draft EIR had been provided to the City of Malibu on Dec. 28, 2021, and the “read” function on the email indicated a city staffer had accessed the information on that date — “a 17-day notification timeline, which does exceed the 10-day requirement,” according to principal planner Addie Farrell, who works on the team contracted by the school district to put together the EIR.

The interaction was just the latest chapter in a rocky relationship between the SMMUSD and City of Malibu, which has of late sat on opposing sides of a sometimes bitter negotiation for Malibu to achieve school district independence and break away from the SMMUSD.

The request for additional time came during a recent trend of high staff turnover at Malibu City Hall, where anywhere from one-third to one-half of the City’s planning department staff has recently departed the City’s employment, according to reporting from Malibu-based news radio station KBUU News. Since October 2020, Malibu has also seen a majority of its senior staff — including its planning director, city attorney, city manager, city clerk and assistant city manager — depart.

Board members said it would be in the District’s best interest to delay moving forward to preserve good relations between the two factions.

“I am concerned that a fellow government entity reached out to us,” Board Member Jon Kean said. “I get how frustrating this is for our staff, I get how frustrating that you guys did everything right. You sent them everything in time.

“It was over the holidays. COVID is raging — COVID is happening in Malibu just like everywhere else,” Kean continued. “I’m trying to extend a little bit of grace for them getting at us at the 11th hour.”

Kean asked district staff if a three-week pause would damage the project or cause an “irreparable delay”; SMMUSD Chief Operations Officer Carey Upton said it would.

“Everything now is becoming an irreparable delay. I mean, this is one of the challenges we’re having with the planning department with Malibu,” Upton said, stating that District and Malibu City staff could not agree on the timing for various documents to be approved.

“If we miss construction in November, then we’re kicking it — we’re not going to open, you know, August of [20]24, which has been our goal. And, in some ways, some of the delays that the Planning Commission is now putting in front of us, we’re talking about a delay of more than a year … not opening until 2025. So, it’s actually critical that we encourage — both move this forward and encourage — the fact that we have to sort of hit these marks; otherwise, we’re going to be another year, and in some ways not be able to afford this project because of escalation.” In other words, delays could mean growing costs that make the current plan unattainable.

Board Member Laurie Lieberman said she would approve a delay to the Board’s Feb. 3 meeting.

“This project is gorgeous, and I know you’ve done a completely thorough job here,” Lieberman told District staff. “I mean no disrespect to any of you or to the project or to anyone, but I personally feel sitting on this board, given the contentiousness over how we treat the City of Malibu and its residents — even without that, I would say, I don’t understand how we don’t extend the courtesy — whether it was the City of Santa Monica or the City of Malibu, in a situation like this where they’ve asked for it. And if you add that [contentious relationship] into it, that only makes me feel more strongly.”

Of seven SMMUSD Board members, only Craig Foster — the sole Malibu resident on the board — spoke up in favor of ignoring Malibu’s request and continuing on with the EIR approval.

In lieu of moving forward immediately, Foster said he felt strongly that the relationship between the District and City of Malibu would need to be mended.

“If we take those weeks, what I want to have happen is that there is a serious — and I mean serious — conversation about the level of cooperation between the City of Malibu Planning Department and our staff to get this project built. It cannot be that every direction we turn is too damn hard.

“The people of Malibu voted for this, our staff is working on it, we have a responsibility to the people of Malibu, the Malibu Planning Department has a responsibility to the people of Malibu,” Foster continued. “And if this needs to be a political process, it will be a political process.”

In the end, the Board voted unanimously, 7-0, to approve the delay, while also performing outreach to Malibu. Board members were to send a letter to Malibu City Council encouraging closer contact as the process continued, and Superintendent Ben Drati was directed to reach out to Malibu Interim City Manager Steve McClary to establish a better working relationship.

Speaking to the Daily Press later, Foster said the board meeting was “a bad night out for me and a frustrating delay,” but spoke optimistically about the process moving forward.

“So, my hope is, ultimately, the Superintendent and the Malibu City Manager will be able to step in when the two staffs can’t find a way to see eye to eye, resolve it quickly in whichever direction it needs to go, and then we move forward and keep the building as safe, inexpensive and rapidly-arriving as possible,” Foster said.