A recently released report commissioned by Malibu parents has found that Malibu meets many key requirements necessary to break off from Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, though several questions remain.
The feasibility study, funded by the local group Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS), gauged whether Malibu meets nine separation criteria laid out in the state’s Education Code. It determined that an independent Malibu school district would garner sufficient enrollment (approximately 1,500 students) and enough property tax and bond revenue to stay financially afloat.
But the report suggested further study to guarantee that Malibu students would still have access to special education programs and that school community members support a Malibu-only district. Other areas requiring additional research include determining how district property would be divided between Santa Monica and Malibu, and whether Malibu would continue to receive parcel taxes from Measure R, which was passed in 2008 by voters in both communities.
The two districts would also have to flesh out a deal to divide up $250 million worth of bond debt, plus the recently passed $385 million Measure ES.
Craig Foster, the president of AMPS and a longtime advocate of separation, characterized the study as a step in the right direction.
“We think that this study is encouraging for the possibility that each city could have its own school district meeting its own needs,” Foster said. “Now we just need to work through the details to make sure that’s true and attractive to all the stakeholders.”
The study was paid for by AMPS and done in cooperation with SMMUSD officials. One finding in the report that could loom as a major sticking point down the road is that SMMUSD would lose 17 percent of its enrollment to an independent Malibu school district, which would mean 17 percent less funding from the state.
“This report tells us that the idea is not dead in the water, the idea has credibility, but there’s still many, many things that need to be worked out,” said Ben Allen, an SMMUSD board of education member.
SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon said that while the report matter-of-factly lays out a 17 percent loss for Santa Monica, making those cuts a reality would pose quite a challenge given drastic cuts SMMUSD has already made in the last four years.
“The [report] budget is predicated on us reducing completely our expenditures by 17 percent,” said Supt. Sandra Lyon. “The reality is that may not be possible.”
The study also assumes that if Malibu separates, it will continue benefitting from Measure R, a parcel tax passed in 2008 by 73 percent of voters that brought in $10.6 million from Santa Monica and Malibu residents in 2011- 2012. In order for Malibu to keep that revenue stream, Sacramento legislators would have to pass special legislation, also called “spot” legislation, to preserve the tax for both communities if the district is granted separation.
Malibu City Councilwoman and AMPS member Laura Rosenthal, who has attended many stakeholder meetings discussing possible separation, does not foresee spot legislation becoming a major roadblock.
“I’m not concerned. Other districts and areas have gotten spot legislation,” Rosenthal said. “There’s different ways, creative ways to deal with that.”
But Jan Maez, the district’s chief financial officer, said there’s no guarantee that would happen.
“[The report] assumes that the parcels in Malibu would continue to contribute to pay for the Malibu district,” she said. “There’s nothing that says that can’t happen, but there’s nothing in law that says it will happen.”
Another constituency that must support the process of separation is the teachers and other unionized workers. Currently there is no legal entity in Malibu for those unionized teachers to negotiate with, and if Malibu separates, a new teacher and service employees’ union would have to form.
The process of separating the two districts, should they agree, is still expected to take several years. First, Malibu voters would have to petition for the separation. SMMUSD would then need to seek approval of the split from the Los Angeles County Office of Education. The county can then recommend the separation to the state’s Department of Education. Next, the state would have to give its stamp of approval in order to send the separation back to Santa Monica and Malibu residents for a vote. The whole process could cost $2 million, according to Foster.
Still, Foster and other AMPS members believe separation is ultimately best for both cities, due to differences in community identity, geographical distance between the two and the lack of Malibu representation on the board of education since 2008.
“Malibu has its own need for its own voice and its own need for governance of a school district,” Foster said.
To a certain extent, Allen agrees.
“At the end of the day, are they being poorly served by the Santa Monica-Malibu school district? I don’t think so,” Allen said. “However, I do think there is always something to be said for local control and local self-determination.”
Lyon plans on holding a meeting with a board subcommittee this week to discuss AMPS’ report and determine where district staff should go from here. She has yet to decide when the study will be presented at a public meeting with the board of education.