School board votes to study district breakup further

Study shows new districts could survive.

By Ashley Archibald / The Santa Monica Daily Press

The Board of Education will hire consultants to analyze the impact of splitting the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District between its two incorporated cities after preliminary research by staff showed that the two new districts might survive the breakup.

The studies will be done by an independent party and will look at both the finances of the two proposed school districts and polls of the Malibu community to make sure that support for the effort goes beyond a vocal minority.

Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS), a parent group that’s squarely behind the separation effort, has agreed to pay for the studies.

Given the depth of emotion that has come out around the issue, it would pay to see if the idea is feasible and if there’s broad support amongst the Malibu community, which would have to find at least a two-thirds majority to make some of the provisions work, board members said.

“I think we should move forward,” said Boardmember Nimish Patel. “We owe it to you, we owe it to the community and I want it to happen.”

The decision delighted Malibu residents who packed City Hall to show support for the separation, which some believe would solve a chronic problem of under-representation at a district packed with elected officials from Santa Monica.

“This is a big deal in the sense that Malibu’s been trying to [break off from] Santa Monica for 30 years,” Craig Foster, president of the Webster Elementary parent group and member of AMPS, told The Malibu Times Tuesday, “And this is the furthest we’ve ever gotten to my knowledge, and it’s the best chance we’ve had. “

According to early work by district Chief Financial Officer Jan Maez, a new Santa Monica-only district would operate $4.1 million in the red annually, down from the $4.6 million the SMMUSD currently copes with.

A Malibu district, which would also include some parts of unincorporated Los Angeles, would have an annual shortfall of $2.35 million.

Though both show red ink, neither number reflects the impact of parent and community fundraising, which has amounted to millions of extra revenue to the district in years past, nor does it include staff reductions for the Santa Monica schools, despite the fact that it would lose 17 percent of its student body.

The calculation also assumes that Malibu will lose its share of a parcel tax, which would expire after the split assuming that either Malibu voters did not agree to a new tax or local legislators did not pass what county officials call “spot legislation” to preserve the revenue stream.

If passed, the tax would turn the new district’s fortunes around, supporters say.

At a candidate forum Saturday, the four candidates running for the newly formed 50th Assembly seat, which represents Malibu and Santa Monica, weighed in on the spot legislation.

Democrat Betsy Butler and Republican Bradley Torgan both said they would support a potential future measure to preserve the existing parcel tax in Malibu should the schools in Malibu and unincorporated parts of Los Angeles succeed in a current effort to split from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

“I would be honored to carry their legislation,” Butler said, provided that the two proposed districts felt that it would be the best for both of them.

Democrats Richard Bloom and Torie Osborn expressed doubts that a second district would be beneficial to students because of the increased overhead costs, and said they would have to be convinced otherwise to take on the bill.

Beyond the parcel tax, the remaining roadblock is debt on existing bonds, which were issued to pay for facilities improvements throughout the district.

According to the report, the district is shouldering approximately $222 million in debt from Measure BB bonds, and around 30 percent of those payments fall squarely on Malibu, which has higher property values than Santa Monica.

If the two districts split immediately, all of the debt would be placed on the new Santa Monica district unless the two districts could come to some kind of agreement, Maez said.

It would also be more difficult for the new Santa Monica district to issue the remaining $83 million in bonds without the Malibu property. The district had planned to issue those bonds this year for projects, including new facilities at Malibu High School.

Overall, the presentation was rosier than many attendees had predicted, causing some to scrap previous objections and move forward with a more conciliatory attitude.

But despite the new sense of togetherness, the effort could still fall through.

New studies could show financial weaknesses in the proposed districts that Maez’ calculations did not predict, or struggles with what Foster and others noted were the two largest hurdles — the questions of the parcel tax and bonds.

“We can deal with those collectively after we work out all of the other details,” Foster said. “If we can fix this, we’ll have two separate districts that can be highly cooperative and successful.”

The cooperation of the Board of Education is critical if Malibu is to split from SMMUSD.

Officials at the Los Angeles County Office of Education made it clear at a study session in March that if the board objected to Malibu schools leaving the district, the effort would likely fail.

“If it’s controversial, good luck getting it on the agenda any time soon,” Matthew Spies, a representative of the county Office of Education, told board members and the public in March.

That process is a long one, which can span several years with no promise of success.

First, the application must go to the Committee on District Reorganization at the county level and then to the state Department of Education, either with the approval of the county body or on appeal.

It takes about a year to get the matter heard by the Department of Education, and its vote is final.

If approved, the matter would be placed on the ballot in the next election. It would be up to the county Office of Education to recommend who could vote on that issue — Malibu and Santa Monica residents, or just those in Malibu — and the state would either accept that recommendation or make its own.

This article was originally printed in The Santa Monica Daily Press, and includes updates by The Malibu Times staff.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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