Guest Column: Malibu Children and Families Deserve an Independent School District

Malibu Mayor Karen Farrer

The hyphen in the title of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District says it all. That punctuation mark symbolizes the uneasy tension of trying to connect two distinctly different, noncontiguous communities into a single school system. It also reminds us in Malibu that we are often an afterthought for Santa-Monica-centric school district decision-makers when it comes to educating our community’s children. We are out of sight and frequently out of mind.

It is time we let each community govern its own schools and focus on its own needs and aspirations. On Saturday, April 17, we are presenting to the Los Angeles County Office of Education Committee on District Reorganization our petition to split from SM-MUSD and form our own school district. Our feasibility study shows convincingly that both Santa Monica and Malibu will benefit by being separate. 

Ironically, SM-MUSD could never have been joined under current state law. The law now says, “No school district may be newly formed or reorganized so that any portion of it is completely separated by territory of another school district.” Santa Monica and Malibu are geographically separated by 22 miles along Pacific Coast Highway. You have to leapfrog parts of Los Angeles Unified School District to get from Malibu schools to the district headquarters in Santa Monica. It makes no sense. It would be like Santa Monica annexing Downey with only the 25 miles and several freeways to connect them.

So, why are Santa Monica leaders allowing this archaic system to disadvantage yet another generation of Malibu students? The answer is simple . . . money.

The SM-MUSD Board of Education and administration have gone on record saying they agree that it is time for separation to occur. The only hitch is that they want to hold the property tax base of Malibu hostage for 50 years in exchange for acceding to our demand for local control. They know that Malibu home values will keep going up and they want to capture the growing property tax revenue in our community to prop up their school district budget. Keep in mind, Malibu only has 14 percent of the students in SM-MUSD, but we contribute one third of the $90 million in property tax revenue in the district budget.

SM-MUSD receives approximately $50 million in “other local funding” (grants, sales taxes, rental income, redevelopment funds, parent/business donations, etc.) each year beyond state education funding and property tax sources.  That makes up almost 35 percent of its general fund budget. Santa Monica will be able to retain these funds in separation. 

Sadly, SM-MUSD advocates are trying to change the narrative to vilify Malibu as an elitist white enclave ready to abandon children of color and socio-economic disadvantage. This is a well-worn scare tactic designed to disregard the facts. The SM-MUSD administration has been feeding the community a steady diet of misinformation and faulty projections about school funding to fuel emotional push-back to our petition.

They and others are presuming that if Malibu splits from Santa Monica it would automatically decrease per-pupil funding, causing a negative impact on efforts to bring equity and equality to their community’s diverse student population. That is simply not true. Separation would increase per pupil funding for both districts.

SM-MUSD also falsely claims that we walked away from negotiating a separation agreement. That also is not true. Rather than engaging in good faith negotiations, SM-MUSD made a preposterous demand suggesting the transfer of billions of dollars of Malibu tax base into Santa Monica schools in perpetuity.  Even now, they have refused to publicly announce or consider our best and final offer, which was transmitted to them in early March and ensures a tax-sharing formula if Santa Monica USD per-pupil funding dropped below current levels. 

Frankly, it is insulting to imply that Malibu does not care about the impact of separation on all students in both communities. We do.

If you do the math correctly, the facts speak for themselves. Here are facts that leaders and families in both communities should consider before making a snap judgement about separation:

* The two cities already operate separately with unique identities, needs and priorities, not to mention separate infrastructure like athletic fields, sports leagues, transportation corridors and emergency services (county vs. city police and fire).

* While SM-MUSD neglects Malibu, parents have no choice but to flee the district to find quality academic programs and facilities their children need. This neglect is causing a steady decline in enrollment in Malibu schools. If we do nothing, our enrollment will drop even more.

* SM-MUSD currently ranks third in LA County for per-pupil funding behind only Beverly Hills and Acton-Agua Dulce. After reorganization, Malibu USD would still rank third and Santa Monica USD would rank fourth in terms of per-pupil funding.

* Malibu students are not offered the same level of academic opportunities, courses and programs as Santa Monica students. Malibu students are currently disadvantaged because many unique programs are only offered at locations in Santa Monica. 

* Members of the SM-MUSD Board of Education are elected at large from the entire district. That means there may not be a Malibu resident on the board at all. In the recent past, we went six years without direct representation of Malibu’s interests on the board.  We are being over-taxed and under-represented.

* The health and safety of Malibu students is put at risk when the SM-MUSD Board and administration fails to respond to catastrophes that are unique to the Malibu terrain. For example, as the Woolsey Fire started to spread to the Santa Monica Mountains on the morning of Nov. 9, 2018, SM-MUSD administration ignored pleas by its Malibu Board member to close schools so that Malibu parents, students and teachers could focus on the looming crisis. 

* When Malibu High School was found to have PCBs, SM-MUSD refused to clean up an unsafe school and spent over $10 million in legal fees fighting against the $1.6 million it would have cost to remediate the harm.

* Contrary to the rhetoric of the SM-MUSD advocates, the demographics of each set of schools will stay the same. Malibu students will continue to attend Malibu schools and Santa Monica students will continue to attend Santa Monica schools.

The list of facts and figures goes on. I recommend that you visit our City of Malibu website ( for more details.

Serving all students well in both communities has always been our goal. It has been widely accepted that the formation of an independent MUSD would improve the diversity efforts in SM-MUSD. In 2016, Dr. Pedro Noguera, a renowned education expert and dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, assessed inequities in the district and provided recommendations on how to improve outcomes for certain student groups. His study concluded that having to serve Malibu—a distinct, noncontiguous community—creates distractions that impede the district’s ability to focus on diversity efforts.

“The lack of focus and coherence throughout the district has undermined many of the [diversity] strategies aimed at improving teaching and learning,” said Noguera. “The ongoing debate over separation, the intense debates that have unfolded over equity in funding and resources, have served as a major source of distraction from district equity efforts.” 

Malibu was added to Santa Monica USD over 150 years ago as a convenience for a single large rural landowner. That antiquated unification is clearly an inconvenience today. Malibu needs and deserves it own unified school district. It’s time.

Karen Farrer has been a school district and community volunteer for over 27 years, past executive board member of the SM-M PTA Council, and former member of the SM-MUSD Facilities Advisory Committee. She is deeply involved in many Malibu community organizations. She was elected to the Malibu City Council in 2018.