Malibu input demanded on $385M SMMUSD bond

Current Board of Ed member Ben Allen (left), and AMPS members Craig Foster and Seth Jacobson participate in a forum for Board of Education candidates on Oct. 3 at Malibu City Hall. 

With a school district Board of Education election fast approaching on Nov. 6, Malibu education activists pressed school board members to give Malibu greater authority to determine how funds from Measure ES, a $385-million facilities bond, will be distributed should the measure pass local approval on the November ballot.

At least 55 percent of residents in Malibu and Santa Monica must vote in favor of the bill for it to pass. If it does, Malibu is guaranteed at least $77 million, or 20 percent, from the $385-million measure. Estimates show that Malibu residents will contribute 30 percent of the total bond money because of higher assessed values in the City of Malibu. However, the City of Santa Monica contributes $14 million annually to the district through two shared use agreements.

At the board’s regular meeting Thursday last week at Malibu City Hall, Board of Ed candidates Seth Jacobson, Craig Foster and Malibu City Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal asked the board to consider a joint powers authority (JPA) or a similar solution. Under such a proposal, two representatives from the district and two representatives from the City of Malibu would have the legal right to allocate Malibu’s share of the bond money.

“I think that is the only way the Malibu people will feel that our needs are going to be met and listened to,” Rosenthal told board members. “What we need is a legal entity so that Malibu gets to makeis spent.”

Board members Nimish Patel, Laurie Lieberman, Maria Leon-Vazquez and board President Ben Allen met the JPA idea with apprehension.

Lieberman preferred having a committee of volunteers as advisers because they would not have to deal with term expirations, whereas elected Malibu or SMMUSD officials would have to abandon the JPA once their term ends.

“Once you have a JPA, you’re stuck with that particular form,” Lieberman said. With an advisory committee, there would be more legal leeway, she said.

Superintendent Sandra Lyon also said she would hesitate to recommend creating a legal entity because the district would be charting very new territory in forming a JPA. Instead, she said the district could rely on local feedback from those involved with Malibu schools.

“We know we have engaged folks at each site, parents, community, staff, who have a lot to say about their site, we could bring them in together, inviting city council, planning people, people who are engaged in that process to be a part of that is critical,” Lyon said. “I think we can do that without creating a structure that we’re still not sure of.”

Board members are willing to create an advisory committee that would make suggestions to the board on how Malibu’s share of the money is spent, but the JPA seems like a tough sell at this point.

“We’ve got a $385-million bond that we want to provide for our kids, infrastructure, and modernization and health and safety, and fire and earthquake safety and we’re talking about this [Malibu dispute] and it’s splitting us apart. We have to keep the bigger picture in mind here,” Patel said.

Despite the board’s apprehensions, district officials said they are willing to hear more on the possibility of a legal entity being formed. Lyon is set to meet with Foster, Jacobson, Rosenthal and other community members to hear more suggestions. She will present her findings to the board at its next meeting on Oct. 18 in Santa Monica.

Many say issue is bigger than bond allocation

The discussion over Malibu’s control in bond money distribution last week gave way to a broader problem: frustration over not having a Malibu resident on the Board of Education since 2008. That frustration was a major topic of discussion at a candidates forum hosted by the City of Malibu and the Santa Monica League of Women Voters last week.

The six candidates running for three open seats on the board met at Malibu City Hall for the forum on Wednesday last week before an audience of about 20 people.

Three candidates from Malibu—Seth Jacobson, Craig Foster and Karen Farrer—are running on the same ticket against three Santa Monica incumbents: Ben Allen, Maria Leon-Vazquez and Jose Escarce.

Allen was elected to the board in 2008, while Leon-Vazquez and Escarce have held board seats for 12 years.

During the forum, Farrer, Jacobson and Foster continued pushing for Malibu to separate from Santa Monica and create its own school district. Their group, Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, recently funded an independent study that concluded that Malibu and Santa Monica would be better off financially if SMMUSD splits.

“There’s a huge community identity here in Malibu…and unfortunately what we have now is a lack of trust in our school district headquarters [in Santa Monica], which is located far away and very often we find ourselves off the radar,” Farrer said.

Allen and Escarce were receptive to the idea of separation. Leon-Vazquez was the only candidate opposed to Malibu breaking off from the district.

“There hasn’t been any factual arguments really made within Malibu to say that we have been unfair and the children of Malibu have not fared well under the direction of the combined school district of Santa Monica-Malibu,” Leon-Vazquez said.

Escarce said the option of separation should not be taken off the table, but it will provide difficult bureaucratic roadblocks.

“This is a complicated process and unfortunately, for better or for worse, it’s a highly political process at the county and state level,” Escarce said.

Candidates also answered questions regarding other topics such as how to handle a financial crisis should Propositions 30 and 38 not pass. If neither proposition is approved by voters, SMMUSD Chief Financial Officer Jan Maez has projected the district could lose up to $5 million as a result of automatic cuts to the state education budget that would kick in.

Farrer said she would look for ways to cut funds at the administrative level. Allen said he would urge the board to look at ways to increase district revenue.

Each candidate stressed that they had the best interest of students, teachers and community in mind. The three candidates from Malibu argued, however, that this election could mean major changes at the district- and board-level.

“The reason we need to elect three members from Malibu is we need to change status quo,” Jacobson said. “We need to rebuild the confidence of our community in the school board.”

Last week’s forum will air on local access television three times a week up until the Nov. 6 election and the Santa Monica League of Women’s Voters will play host to another forum on Oct. 17 at SMMUSD headquarters in Santa Monica.