Santa Monica City Council is willing to stick its neck — and, if necessary, its checkbook — out to support the local School District in its challenge against district-based voting.

On Jan. 1, a new law came into effect that allows petitioners to request county school boards implement voting districts in their communities. The rule, under SB 442, is designed to ensure residents of chronically underrepresented neighborhoods — those where a majority of residents are people of color or members of another protected class — do not see their votes diluted by traditional, at-large voting.

“At-large elections may operate to dilute minority votes, and campaigning in at-large elections is significantly more expensive than in by-trustee area elections,” the bill’s text reads.

SB 442 allows any petitioners to go straight to their county’s school board with a proposed map and request voting districts, rather than putting the proposal before a general vote. Designed to speed up the process of creating more equitable voting districts, many in opposition see it as anti-democratic and potentially unconstitutional.

Those opponents include five members of Santa Monica’s seven-member City Council, which voted on Tuesday, Feb. 8, to join the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education in its opposition to a map currently before the LA County Office of Education that would split SMMUSD into seven districts, including two non-contiguous districts that group areas of Malibu with areas of Santa Monica.

Mayor Sue Himmelrich and Council Members Gleam Davis and Lara Negrete proposed the motion, stating the proposed map “was drawn by the petition’s proponents without any input from SMMUSD stakeholders” and that it “seems not to have been drawn in accordance with the California Elections Code.” Moreover, Himmelrich, Davis and Negrete said, the petition seeks to “override the Santa Monica City Charter without a vote of the people and without a showing of any compelling interest that would justify doing so.”

The motion called for stating opposition to the petition, as well as authorizing city staff “to use City resources, as appropriate, to support the SMMUSD and to publicly oppose the nullification of the City charter in public media, at any hearing held by the County Committee on School District Organization, and, if necessary, through litigation.”

Several members of the public wrote in to council before the meeting, with most expressing support for the motion, saying they did not believe the proposed district map was either necessary, constitutional or properly drawn. Those letter writers included School Board members, the nonprofit CEPS (Community for Excellent Public Schools), Santa Monica Renters Rights and the Alliance of Santa Monica Latino and Black Voters.

“My real issue is this: I believe that, first of all, the maps are, in my opinion, absurd,” Himmelrich said during the Tuesday meeting. “Districts are supposed to be contiguous. They aren’t.”

But, Himmelrich added, the other issue is that the maps are a ploy to create an independent Malibu school district. The Mayor called the proposal “just another tactic to do that.”

The most outspoken opponent of the Council motion was Council Member Oscar de la Torre, who, when questioned, admitted that his name appeared as a petitioner on the first version of the SMMUSD districting petition. However, the current version, supported by parents from both Santa Monica and Malibu including attorney Kevin Shenkman, an outspoken proponent of district-based elections, does not name de la Torre as a petitioner.

“The School District has the power to put this before the voters, if the School District wants to do that, to resolve their political conflicts,” de la Torre said, adding, “Even if this fails, it’s not going to go away. These conflicts have been there for a long time and they’ve only escalated in the last few years. So, I just think it’s not really our role. We should keep a hands off [approach] on the School District. It sets a bad precedent [not to do so].”

The final vote was 5-2, with de la Torre and Council Member Phil Brock voting against the motion. Brock raised concerns with the potential expense of offering legal support to the SMMUSD to challenge SB 442. Saying he wasn’t “thrilled about districts that cleave Santa Monica,” Brock still maintained he would vote against the motion — “reluctantly.”

Davis said it was important to offer support in litigation, since the crux of the argument was that the law illegally overrides the Santa Monica City Charter.

“We need to authorize our City Attorney to appear in court on our behalf and make our position that we’re supporting the School District clear,” Davis said, “and that’s why the reference to litigation is important.”

emily@smdp.com