Murky Future for District Separation Negotiations


The future of negotiations between Malibu and Santa Monica over a possible separation of school districts has been thrown into doubt after a series of events over the last week, culminating with the resignation of one of Malibu’s negotiation team members.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) sent out a notice last Thursday evening, April 14, that the negotiations meeting scheduled for Thursday night would not be attended by the three representatives from Santa Monica, who cited a lawsuit filed against the City of Santa Monica as their reason for boycotting the meeting. The notice went out less than two hours before the meeting was scheduled to begin.

Tom Larmore, Paul Silvern and Debbie Mulvaney, the Santa Monica negotiating committee representatives, sent a letter to SMMUSD administrators Thursday to inform them of the decision, according to information provided by SMMUSD spokespeople. 

The committee was scheduled to have its second official meeting to decide terms of separation of the SMMUSD into two districts, one serving Santa Monica and the other serving Malibu. The committee’s 60-day clock had already begun counting down.

The Malibu committee was made up of Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal, attorney Kevin Shenkman and AMPS COO Manel Sweetmore. Shenkman is also an attorney representing plaintiffs in the suit.

According to information from SMMUSD spokespeople, the catalyzing issue leading to the freeze in negotiations was the lawsuit filed against the City of Santa Monica.

The fact that AMPS was a plaintiff in the suit caused great concern in Santa Monica.

According to the district’s release, “the concern of the Santa Monica committee members is that the complaint was filed by Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS), along with other parties, against the City of Santa Monica, and it asks the court to declare that the Santa Monica City Charter provision specifying at-large elections to the school board is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.”

Shenkman, who resigned from the committee, did not mince words when discussing the actions of his Santa Monican counterparts.

“I think that in order to retaliate against us in this way, the Santa Monica folks had to really contrive some connection between the two, to try to justify their retaliation,” Shenkman said. “But it is what it is.”

Shenkman said that the school district engaged in “overarching deception” in its press release Thursday, because “the lawsuit is not against the school district.”

“I think that it’s, at a minimum, contrived to try to come up with some way that this is connected to the school district, much less the financial terms of a split between Santa Monica and Malibu,” Shenkman said.

Rosenthal, who confirmed she was not aware of the lawsuit before reading about it after news broke, had a slightly different perspective about how negotiations fell apart Thursday.

“What’s done is done, and it’s hard to judge whether anyone is justified to [boycott negotiations],” Rosenthal said. “I don’t know what I would have done in their shoes, but the important thing to me is that they’re willing to negotiate now and build back the trust.”

Larmore said that Shenkman’s resignation and AMPS’ decision to pull out of the lawsuit are “very positive things.”

“They certainly will help,” Larmore said. “Help a great deal, I think.”

Both Larmore and Shenkman alluded to some hurt feelings caused by the suit and fallout from its filing.

“It was all a complete surprise to us, and we’ve been working very hard, I think, to establish a sense of collaboration between negotiators and this was completely outside that realm,” Larmore said. 

On the other side, Shenkman said Santa Monica committee members “ran afoul” of a ground rule that stated: “When discussing the committee’s work with reporters, committee members will try not to blame or criticize each other.”

“They put out a press release that assigned motivations to me, personally, and secondarily to Manel Sweetmore, that were incorrect and disparaging, and they weren’t supposed to do that, but apparently they didn’t take seriously their agreement in that respect,” Shenkman said.

Rosenthal, however, remained positive.

“I am optimistic that we’re going to get back on track, and I really believe that,” Rosenthal said.

The three members of the Santa Monica team will present a report discussing the future of the negotiation process at the Thursday, May 5, School Board meeting.