Study Examines Santa Monica-Malibu School District Separation

Advocates for Malibu Public Schools

 An education research company last week released a second study examining the implications of separating Malibu and Santa Monica into separate school districts. The study, funded by a Malibu parent group advocating for separation, concluded that teachers and service workers would have the option of joining either new district. Dividing parcel taxes passed in both cities to fund the Santa Monica- Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) could require special legislation in Sacramento, it found. 

The feasibility study was funded by Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS) and completed by WestEd, an education research company recommended by SMMUSD officials. 

AMPS President Craig Foster found good news in the study’s results. 

“We found a pathway on all the major issues that we’re aware of,” Foster said. 

The study was commissioned as a follow-up to a study earlier this year, which found that an independent Malibu school district could garner sufficient enrollment and enough property tax and bond revenue to operate. 

The initial study raised serious questions, though, about preservation of bond indebtedness and parcel taxes to fund schools in both the Malibu and Santa Monica communities, as well as questions about employee rights under a new Malibu district. 

District officials and other members of a financial oversight committee were said to be meeting in Santa Monica on Tuesday night to discuss the second study’s findings as The Malibu Times went to press. 

Several officials said they had not had a chance to analyze the study in depth yet, including SMMSD Board of Education member Ben Allen and Keryl Kartee-McNeely, chief steward for Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

Rules and examples outlined in the California Education Code form the basis of WestEd’s analysis, including a 15-year-old district “reorganization” case similar to Santa Monica-Malibu. 

“The most recent example of this type of reorganization is the creation of Golden Valley [in Madera County just north of Fresno],” according to WestEd. “Golden Valley provides an example of a new district … successfully attending to employee group interests, bond management and starting-up a new district.” 

Employment rights and collective bargaining 

A crucial sticking point of possible separation from Santa Monica has been whether faculty and staff who currently work at schools in Malibu would retain their employee benefits and ability to unionize. 

In a past interview with The Malibu Times, Cartee-McNeely voiced concerns over service staff allocation. 

“If Malibu were to separate, Santa Monica would be left with a reduction of the number of schools they would be servicing,” she said. “There would be a potential for staff reduction because headquarters are no longer providing these services to Malibu schools.” 

Until a petition for a new district is approved by the state board of education, “there is no standing entity for employee groups to negotiate with,” the study found. But as a new district is formed during a code-provided one-year “transition” period, the state’s education code does provide for some employee protections until new teacher and service employee collective bargaining unions form. 

“Classified employees are guaranteed in a new unified district … continue employment for not less than two years” under original SMMUSD benefit agreements, the study said. 

WestEd concluded that both service employees and teachers would have the option of staying with the old district, or opting into the newly formed district. 

Employee pension systems are “unaffected” by reorganization because they are managed by the state’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and State Teachers Retirement System (STRS), according to WestEd. 

Additionally, if a teacher stays on with the new district, the ed code requires the new district to honor their seniority, according to WestEd. 

Parcel tax division method unclear 

State code is murky in regard to splitting up property taxes and could require special state legislation based on specific tax provisions in Santa Monica and Malibu, according to WestEd. It noted that similar special legislation was passed for Santa Barbara. 

Next steps 

Foster said AMPS still needs to work in conjunction with SMMUSD to assure each group of stakeholders is on board, including teachers, service workers, the board of education, parents and local voters. WestEd recommends AMPS begin drafting a petition using input from stakeholders and possibly survey teachers to “gauge interest in employment options should a reorganization go forward.” 

If local petitioning succeeds and Malibu garners local, county and state approval, AMPS has stated the earliest feasible date for separation is July 2015. But that could be pushed back “a year or two,” Foster said Tuesday, depending on bumps in the road along the way.