The special meeting format may become more common as SMMUSD leadership works through backlog of agenda items

In a brief, 45-minute special meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 26, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) ticked through a short agenda of items including discussions of green school operations and environmental safety.

The biggest-ticket item, certification of the Malibu Middle and High School campus specific plan final environmental impact report, was breezed through in just under five minutes.

The meeting’s efficiency stood in stark contrast to the School Board’s normal meetings, which regularly go on for six or seven hours — due in no small part to enthusiastic public commentary, which was absent from the brief special meeting last week.

But for efficiency’s sake during COVID-19, Wednesday’s meeting may become a more common practice, SMMUSD Board President Maria Leon-Vazquez said.

“In the future, we’re going to probably end up doing these little mini special meetings, just to catch up on some of the work that we need to do because of — hopefully COVID will not be as overwhelming in this next coming months and we can come to our plateau on this as we move forward,” Leon-Vazquez said.

Notably, the Malibu High School item had been discussed for more than 90 minutes at a prior board meeting, making the certification more of a formality.

At that meeting, held on Jan. 13, the City of Malibu Planning Department requested a delay in certifying the EIR, claiming it had not been given enough time to review changes and clarifications it had requested on a draft version of the document. Although SMMUSD staff said the City had been given 17 days to read over the document — much more than the 10 days mandated by law — the Board decided to grant the delay, while reaching out to Malibu leadership to expedite the process moving forward.

That outreach appears to have worked, with Malibu staff quickly granting approval of the final EIR. Malibu Planning Director Richard Mollica attended the Board’s special meeting to say his staff was satisfied with the document, following a virtual meeting that was convened the previous week.

“I appreciate what you guys did at your last meeting,” Mollica said, later adding, “We were able to get your consultants and specialists in a virtual room with our consultants and specialists and just kind of go through our comment letter, line by line, and with the changes that I know your team made this past weekend — [I] appreciate that, after the meeting — we believe it to adequately address what we’re going to be looking for to utilize it as the environmental document for when we process a specific plan and the other development application. So, I just want to say thank you very much and I appreciate the consideration.”

The EIR studies the impacts of phase one of a four-phase campus project at Malibu High School, which calls for a brand new classroom building on the campus. Other phases will include a new theater and swimming pool. Funding for the project comes from the $195 million Measure M bond passed by Malibu voters in 2018.

At the time of the Jan. 13 delay, District staff expressed concern a slowdown in the project’s schedule could result in a yearlong delay in the opening of the new high school, anticipated for fall 2024; however, the short slowdown was not expected to harm the project overall, according to SMMUSD Chief Operations Officer Carey Upton.

“When I warned about a delay certifying the EIR, it was unclear if it would be a week delay or months to resolve the City’s concerns,” Upton wrote in an email to the Daily Press. “Happily, we were able to resolve their concerns quickly. The delay also had the benefit of strengthening our working relationship and resolve to move the project forward.” Upton went on to explain that, with the City of Malibu and California Coastal Commission still needing to approve plans in the next few months, the timeline was “tight” but still doable.

“We’re committed to remaining on schedule for an Aug. 2024 opening,” Upton added.

What had been the largest discussion item on Wednesday’s agenda — an update on Santa Monica elementary and middle school projects funded through the Measure SMS bond — was postponed to a future meeting.