DISTRICT: There appears to be progress in talks to split Malibu from Santa Monica. SMDP Photo

A pair of separate proposals, each with the power to dramatically reshape the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD), were formally joined at the hip this week. Staff for the LA County Office of Education (LACOE) said they would pause discussing a petition meant to force SMMUSD away from at-large voting while negotiations over splitting the district into separate Malibu and Santa Monica school districts continue. 

‘Unification’ of two new districts

The years-long and often acrimonious negotiations over “unification” — a counterintuitive term for cleaving the district in two, each “unifying” into its own new district — appeared to be making progress, based on a report presented to the LACOE Committee on School District Organization, with officials saying they hoped to reach a resolution this month. 

“The City [of Malibu] and the [Santa Monica-based] School District continue to engage in negotiations,” attorney Christine Wood, one of Malibu’s negotiators, told committee members during the Wednesday, June 1, meeting. “We really thought that we would be at a point of conclusion by now, but we are not.”

For about seven decades, Santa Monica and Malibu have shared a single school district — the SMMUSD — but for the last decade or so, Malibu has desperately wanted out, citing what representatives say is a lack of local control and equal opportunities for students in the smaller and more sparsely populated city of Malibu.

Fed up with what they characterized as Santa Monica’s lack of responsiveness, Malibu’s representatives ended negotiations and filed directly with LACOE in 2021 — a move meant to put the decision into the County’s hands. But soon after, spokespeople from both camps said they were making headway in negotiations and requested additional time from LACOE. That negotiation continues.

“Things are still moving along — things are positively moving along,” Wood said Wednesday. “And so, we still continue to ask [that] the decision be stayed to give us an opportunity to negotiate, and we appreciate the fact that you guys have been so patient during this process.”

By-district voting petition

The Committee agreed to a month-long extension for the negotiations and, in doing so, said a proposal to move SMMUSD from at large to a seven-district voting system would have to wait pending resolution of the negotiations. 

That petition, filed in January 2022 following the ratification of a new state law — SB 442 — would allow the county committee to create so-called “trustee areas” or voting districts within the SMMUSD, in accordance with the California Voting Rights Act, or CVRA. The proposed map splits the current district into seven trustee areas, including two districts with shared portions of Malibu and Santa Monica. Many proponents of that petition are also in support of Malibu school district independence. 

“Regarding the trustee-area petition, staff continues to review the petition to implement trustee areas and trustee-area voting within the Santa Monica-Malibu USD,” LACOE Regionalized Business Services Coordinator Allison Deegan said. “We have determined that we need to have a demographer review the trustee-area map submitted and any underlying data that was used to create it and, if necessary, develop additional map scenarios at the direction of the county committee. We are in the process of engaging the demographer.

“It is not clear at this time when the petition will be scheduled for a public hearing,” Deegan continued. “As you know, there are no timelines for review of trustee-area petitions under the education code. Additionally, if the Santa Monica-Malibu USD reaches a settlement, any action by the county committee to implement trustee areas and trustee-area voting within the SMMUSD would be moot as the SMMUSD will dissolve.”

Attorney Kevin Shenkman and SMMUSD Board Member Craig Foster were among those who called in to the hearing on Wednesday asking that consideration of the by-district voting petition move forward even while the two sides continue to negotiate a school district split. 

“You have both the authority and the obligation to hear it,” Foster said during the public comment period of the Wednesday hearing. 

Shenkman said the Committee, in not considering the petition, needed to “think about the message you will be sending.”

According to Shenkman, if the Committee did not pledge to consider the petition quickly, “we would be forced to instead sue school districts into compliance with the CVRA.”

“A big part of the stated purpose of Senate Bill 442 is to avoid that costly CVRA litigation for school districts — a noble purpose,” Shenkman continued. “This Committee’s actions today will either affirm that purpose by scheduling the hearing by July 6, or thwart the legislature’s purpose and cost school districts millions.”

Shenkman’s threatened lawsuit against the SMMUSD to force trustee-area voting would not be the only legal action taken up in relation to the issue of by-district voting in the SMMUSD. In March, the SMMUSD and City of Santa Monica jointly sued LACOE over its enforcement of SB 442, in a case designed to challenge the constitutionality of the new law.

The Committee did not formally schedule a time to discuss the petition.