The Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) and the City of Santa Monica have filed a joint lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new state law that could otherwise force SMMUSD to move to district voting by this November. 

The City and SMMUSD are seeking to block the enforcement of SB 442, which allows county-level committees to enact trustee-area (also called by-district) elections for school districts governed by city charters. It would essentially override the Santa Monica City Charter to subdivide Santa Monica and Malibu into seven separate voting districts, each with its own representative elected by voters who live within the district boundaries, replacing the at-large system the lawsuit says has been in place since 1909. 

The filing goes on to allege the law contradicts the California Constitution’s guarantee that charter cities may run their own school board elections.

The City and School District are suing the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization, part of the Los Angeles County Office of Education — the government agency that, under SB 442, may now approve voting districts for the SMMUSD.

SB 442 was passed “in furtherance of the purposes of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001,” which promotes by-district voting as a way to increase representation of marginalized communities.

SB 442 went into effect on Jan. 1, 2022; by Jan. 4, a group of voters from both Santa Monica and Malibu had filed a petition seeking to break up the two communities into seven districts. Santa Monican Tricia Crane and Malibuite Jennifer deNicola filed the petition, which was signed by 500 registered voters, according to the lawsuit filed Friday. 

Under the proposed map, the northern half of Malibu and Santa Monica’s Sunset Park neighborhood would become a single voting block. The southern half of Malibu would be a district that included portions of Santa Monica’s NOMA and Wilmont neighborhoods. The other five districts would be entirely Santa Monica based. 

In the petition, Crane and deNicola wrote that the communities that make up the SMMUSD are diverse, but that those diverse communities have not been represented on the School Board.

“At-large elections are well known to dilute the vote of any minority population, while trustee-area elections ensure representation of all communities. Currently, five of seven SMMUSD trustees reside in just one corner of Santa Monica – the wealthiest neighborhood,” the petition states. “Historically too, that area has been over-represented on the SMMUSD Board of Trustees, while other neighborhoods, such as the Latino- and African American-concentrated Pico Neighborhood, Mid-City and Malibu have enjoyed almost no representation at all.”

Friday’s lawsuit by the City and SMMUSD states that Black and Latino populations have historically been well represented.

“Historically, at-large elections for the SMMUSD Board of Education have led to multi-racial coalitions that have regularly elected minority candidates, including Latino and Black candidates, and candidates preferred by Latino and Black voters,” the lawsuit states. “Indeed, the current Board includes both Black and Latino members.”

Should the petition to enact by-district voting go forward, there will be a hearing set by LACOE in April; the SMMUSD/City lawsuit anticipates by-district voting could be in place in time for the November election, if the legal challenge does not succeed.

Four School Board members — Keith Coleman, Craig Foster, Laurie Lieberman and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein — are up for re-election this fall.

Six of the seven SMMUSD Board of Education members voted to approve the legal action during a closed-door hearing on Thursday, March 17, with Foster not present.

“This case is not about whether SMMUSD Board members should continue to be elected at large or by trustee-area districts. It is about who should be entitled to make that decision,” School Board President Maria Leon-Vazquez said in a statement provided by the District. “The City of Santa Monica and District strongly believe the decision whether to move to trustee-area elections should be made by the residents and voters of SMMUSD, not by a committee composed of unelected representatives with little or no ties to either Santa Monica or Malibu.” 

Foster, Malibu’s only SMMUSD representative, said he was strongly opposed to the move, calling it a waste of money.

“The School Board is not in charge of the Santa Monica City Charter; the Santa Monica City Council is in charge of the Santa Monica City Charter. So, this is just a terrible idea at every level. And the other reason it’s terrible is: we’re wrong,” Foster said. “This is the wrong side of history; it’s the wrong side of the law. The California Voting Rights Act is the most precious part of the inclusion of our electoral process; it’s the key to democratic involvement in California and to be against that is horrible, it’s embarrassing, it’s wrong.”

In a strong statement, Foster said he anticipated all six of his fellow Board Members would resign following a costly and, in the end, unsuccessful suit against the LA County Office of Education.

“I have every expectation that the District is going to lose this lawsuit, and when they do and when the bill for how much money this cost is totaled up and how many teachers had to be fired because we chose this course of action, I hope and expect every single school board member who voted for this will resign in embarrassment,” Foster said.

Representatives for the SMMUSD and City of Santa Monica did not immediately respond to questions about budgetary allocations set aside for the lawsuit.

State Senator Ben Allen, a former SMMUSD School Board member and a current representative for Santa Monica in Sacramento, was not immediately available to provide comment on the legal proceeding. Allen voted in favor of SB 442 when it went to the Senate floor in 2021. 

Allen’s Chief of Staff said the Senator had introduced a bill, SB 1381, in February “to help address the unintended consequences of SB 442.” According to the text of SB 1381, the new bill would add text to California Education Code essentially nullifying SB 442’s override of city charters: “Notwithstanding any other law, in accordance with Section 16 of Article IX of the California Constitution, a county committee on school district organization shall not approve a proposal, petition, resolution, or other request to establish district-based or trustee elections where a city charter establishes at-large elections as the manner of electing the governing board of a school district or community college district.”

SB 1381 is set for a committee hearing on March 30.

A spokesperson for the defendants wrote on Monday that “the County Committee does not comment on pending litigation.”

emily@smdp.com