Malibu Says District Separation Proposals are Being Ignored

SMMUSD Administrative Offices

Malibu school representatives say they’re being iced out.

According to Malibu City Council Member Mikke Pierson, Malibu negotiators have sent “hundreds of pages of material” to LA County’s Office of Education and its representatives, with little indication any of it has been reviewed. According to Malibu Deputy City Attorney Christine Wood, Santa Monica is unnecessarily delaying Malibu’s requests for public records and data.

The allegations came to light during a Wednesday, Nov. 10, public hearing before the LA County Office of Education (LACOE) Committee on School District Organization. 

“Although they publicly state that they want to negotiate, their actions demonstrate that that is not the case,” another Malibu City Council member, Karen Farrer, said about her counterparts from the Santa Monica-based school district.

The hearing last Wednesday was just the latest opportunity for community members and representatives to air grievances about the proposed separation of the Malibu and Santa Monica school districts, which advocates in Malibu have been working toward for more than a decade.

If Malibu is able to secure its own independent school district, there is no question resources toward Malibu education will improve—with local control and local funding, Malibu students can expect more money, meaning more science, language and arts programs, similar to those enjoyed by Santa Monica kids 20 miles away. Malibu parents and representatives also believe local leadership is better equipped to handle Malibu’s unique challenges—citing the major examples of the district’s delayed response to the Woolsey Fire and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination at Malibu High School.

The questions that remain largely focus on how the proposed split will affect students in Santa Monica. District leaders believe some educational programs enjoyed by students there would have to be cut once Malibu’s disproportionate share of funding disappears.

Malibu’s “best and final offer” to Santa Monica includes the transfer of additional property taxes for up to 10 years if Santa Monica per-pupil funding falls below the current level ($16,000 per student), amounting to $30 million. 

But without taking any of Malibu’s analysis or data into account, local representatives ask, how can LACOE make an informed decision?

There are nine state-mandated criteria that must be met for independence to be approved. They include minimum enrollment standards, a distinct community identity, equitable division of assets and liabilities, racial equity, no increase in costs to the state, continued quality of education, no significant increase in school facilities costs, that the proposal is not designed to increase property values, and continued fiscal management.

A LACOE report issued earlier this fall—compiled with input from consultants School Services—indicated Malibu may not meet eight of the nine criteria. On Wednesday, Malibu representatives presented rebuttals to those eight criteria and asked committee members to read over the documents that had been submitted.

“If your staff and consultant do not have a thorough understanding of exactly what our proposal is or disagree with our financial assumptions, how can you, the county committee, properly evaluate our proposal?” Pierson asked.

“The city understands that the LACOE feasibility study must be independent, but we still hope the committee will be given the opportunity to consider the city’s analysis of the nine criteria,” Wood added later in the Malibu presentation.

Attorney David Soldani, representing Santa Monica, implied Malibu’s petition was a ploy to keep Malibu’s money for Malibu students.

“This is the third hearing on this petition and still to this day, there’s not one sentence explaining what the city [of Malibu] visions for an education program,” Soldani said. “What is the city going to do with all that additional money that will improve a program that already has a 100 percent graduation rate? Instead of hearing about an education program, all they talk about is property tax. And that tells you everything you need to know about what’s really behind this petition. 

“In summary, the criteria simply cannot be met here,” Soldani continued. “And there is no compelling reason to overlook any of the criteria, especially where the district is as high performing and successful as the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District.”

Malibu’s complaints did catch the ear of one committee member, Charles Davis. At the close of the hearing, Davis asked his fellow committee members to consider three questions: first, “the $30 million offered [by Malibu]—was that considered anywhere?”; second, in regard to the School Services report—“where did they get their data? Did they do it in a vacuum or did they take Malibu’s petition and go through it?”; and third, “Santa Monica keeps saying Malibu hasn’t done an educational plan… has Malibu been able to get from Santa Monica the answers that they need in order to come up with the plan?”

Davis said the questions did not need immediate answers, calling them “food for thought.”

A decision is expected in about March 2022 on whether to continue moving forward on Malibu’s independence petition. If it is allowed to continue, it will trigger a state review that could take years.