Malibu residents on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) email list were in for a shock last week when they received a school district-created video full of alleged misinformation about the negative consequences the district says would occur if Malibu created its own separate school district.
The video’s release is just the latest chapter in a protracted separation negotiation—one in which Malibu representatives have previously decried Santa Monica’s side as acting in bad faith. The negotiations began in earnest in 2015, but since then Santa Monica has stonewalled numerous attempts by Malibu representatives to come to a solution that does not involve billions of dollars flowing from Malibu into Santa Monica.
The video, which runs about a minute-and-a-half, is professionally produced and slick enough to run as a television ad. Described as a “snapshot into this issue” by district spokesperson Gail Pinsker, the video was an obvious attempt to sway Santa Monica residents to vote against school district separation in the future.
Malibu schools were depicted in beautiful drone shots including beaches, mountains and mansions, while Santa Monica classrooms were made to look crowded and outdated by comparison. The video didn’t include any shots of the Barnum Hall and Memorial Greek Amphitheatre or various other multi-million-dollar structures of Samohi. The video obviously cost time and money—taxpayer money.
The video stated, “We owe it to our children to say no to Malibu’s unjust and inequitable proposal. Please oppose the Malibu petition to prevent the programs we love from harm.”
In response to the video, the City of Malibu filed a complaint with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), a nonpartisan independent body of five members that administers the Political Reform Act. The FPPC Enforcement Division investigates and administratively prosecutes violations of the act with a team of attorneys, investigators, auditors and political reform consultants “who work vigorously to ensure that cases are handled swiftly and fairly,” according to their website.
An email to Malibu City Council Member Karen Farrer said, “Although the date of the unification election has not been called, the process has begun and the process concludes with an election. So it appears the FPPC will find that [SMMUSD] knows that, and that they were attempting to influence the outcome of the election, and therefore are in violation of the law.”
Farrer and the City of Malibu issued statements refuting misinformation in the video, calling it obvious propaganda, and gave a call to action for Malibu residents to make public comments at last week’s SMMUSD special school board meeting.
At the meeting, Malibu resident Wade Major gave a blistering rebuttal to the video after introducing himself as both a former SMMUSD student and now a parent:
“Malibu has always been treated shabbily and uncivilly by Santa Monica—and you know our grievances.
“The video sent to district families this week, just in time to ruin our return to school, in which you wasted money to attack us, slandering us with lies regarding our efforts to form our own district, is a new low.
“You have hopelessly alienated an entire community that you ostensibly want to either keep in the district or lure back to the negotiating table.
“Who thought this was a good idea? Who drafted the language and approved this video? If this were a relationship, it would be deemed so abusive Malibu would have to get a restraining order. It’s not just that the video is a nasty pack of lies, which it is, but why are you lying? At whose behest?
“You’re gaslighting Santa Monica residents with threats of cuts that will never happen. The only kernel of truth is that Santa Monica gets a disproportionate amount of money—about one-third of the budget—from only 12 percent of the district population.
“And we’re supposed to be OK with a district and a board that will always be dominated by Santa Monica residents having uncontrolled sway over our money and our children’s educations? That isn’t democracy; it’s serfdom.
“But what I want Santa Monica residents to consider is there’s only one explanation for a video this malicious—this is a political hit. There are special interests in Santa Monica that want to keep Malibu’s money in the school system so that Santa Monica doesn’t have to make up the difference in a separation. But Santa Monica will always fund its schools, even if they have to make up the money elsewhere, and that elsewhere is Santa Monica’s problem, not Malibu’s. But there clearly are some powerful interests that have some sway on this board, with political aims.”
Another resident, Jo Drummond, in her public comment pointed out the discrepancies in educational quality between the two cities, with Malibu getting the short end of the stick. In Malibu, only two foreign languages are available, while in Santa Monica there’s a choice of six. There are no ethnic studies classes available in Malibu, which are given in Santa Monica. Samohi has a state-of-the-art auditorium while Malibu’s auditorium is “decrepit and inferior.”
The video falsely states that school separation will force SMMUSD to cut program funding for English learners, at-risk students and special education. The truth, according to the City of Malibu’s statement, is that federal law requires a school district to provide these services and also provides the dedicated funding for them.
Members of the public are invited to also file an online complaint with the FPPC at fppc.ca.gov/enforcement/electronic-complaint-system.html. The complaint type is a sworn complaint. The respondent is SMMUSD. Fill out violation info: “type” is mass mailing sent at public expense. Violation Code is 89001. Comments—”See Attached.”