With talk becoming louder for Malibu to form a separate school district, the teachers union head says it is critical the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District remains one entity.
By Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor
School board President Kathy Wisnicki said at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting that for the first time she felt like the “lone Malibu board member.” Her comments followed the other board members’ refusal to consider reversing their October decision to cut Malibu High School’s Measure BB capital project funding from a staff-recommended $27.5 million to $13.5 million. Several Malibu parents came to the meeting pleading for the district leaders to change their minds.
“In my years on the board, I’ve felt like we’ve been a very collaborative group,” Wisnicki said. “And now, I fear that there has been trust destroyed. There has been a disenfranchisement of the Malibu community. Even after the remarks made by the members of the public, I still don’t think the board really gets the issue.”
The justification for reducing Malibu High’s piece of the Measure BB pie was that the $14 million taken away had been designated for a middle school classroom wing. With money also having been eliminated for the two middle schools in Santa Monica, the board members said both cities are in the same situation. But local parents said this reasoning doesn’t work because Malibu High is an integrated campus where high school and middle school students take courses in each other’s classrooms.
“We have had community members time and time again come to the board and say the same thing,” Wisnicki said. “And I hear the same message back [from the board]. And it just shows a lack of understanding.”
Wisnicki said the board and other district officials had told Malibu and Santa Monica parents last year that the needs of both communities would be helped with the passage of the $268 million Measure BB bond. With the Malibu parents upset over a perceived betrayal, she said the election in February for the renewal of two parcel taxes that combine to generate more than $10 million for the district could be threatened.
“We are no longer credible,” Wisnicki said. “And we had the credible voices of a unified school district for the past 12 years. And now that credibility is shot.”
Board members Jose Escarce and Barry Snell said the reason for their votes on Oct. 18, which in addition to reducing Malibu High funding included a nearly $20 million increase for Santa Monica High School, was because they were not certain if building new classrooms at the Malibu campus was the right move, since district enrollment is expected to continue going down. The board will receive results results early next year on a study regarding enrollment projections.
“With the declining enrollment issue, I felt as a board member that we needed to get more information on whether or not getting more classrooms was feasible,” Snell said.
The board members reminded the public that $38 million of the available Measure BB funding was not designated. That money hypothetically could go to the middle school project at Malibu High. But there will be other campuses looking to receive that funding as well.
The board members were making their comments in response to a presentation by Malibu parent Colleen Baum, who said the board had made a mistake by rejecting its staff recommendation. Baum said the problem was that staff’s recommendation, which came out of a series of public and private meetings, had been on the table since the summer. And the board had not opposed the recommendation until Oct. 18 when it received a plan endorsed by the Measure BB Advisory Committee, and the board chose to approve that one instead. The committee had decided on its recommendation three days earlier after being lobbied by a newly formed group known as the Coalition for an Excellent Samohi Campus. That coalition was co-chaired by Judith Meister, a member of the BB committee, and Laurie Lieberman, whose husband Chris Harding is on the BB committee.
“As active members of this special interest group, they [Meister and Harding] were tainted with a conflict of interest,” Baum said. “And they used their position on the advisory committee to influence committee deliberations that elevated the needs of one district campus over another.”
Baum read from the district’s policy laws, which call for advisory committee members to make recommendations “from a neutral party point of view.” She said Meister and Harding should be removed from the BB committee and for the district to review whether any other committee members “have affiliations or personal agendas that will hinder their ability to serve.”
Wisnicki said she would like the district staff to investigate the process and to look into whether anything unethical or illegal occurred, including possible violations to the state’s open meeting law for local governments, the Brown Act. She was unable to get another board members to support her request, and no official vote was taken. Board member Ralph Mechur said he did not want to start a witch hunt. Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez said there was no reason to do an investigation.
“It’s just allegations being made,” she said. “There are no facts supporting any of those allegations. I really don’t understand what the whole reasoning of a conflict of interest would be for committee members… I really wouldn’t want our staff to spend the time and money on something that might not even be there.”
Several Malibu parents spoke after Baum’s presentation, with many saying they felt betrayed by the board’s decision since they helped get the $268 million Measure BB approved last year by voters.
“I’m here to ask you not to make a liar out of me,” said Dana Weinberg, who has a sixth-grade daughter at Malibu High. “Last year, I personally worked the phone banks on behalf of Measure BB. I told many families that voting to pass Measure BB will greatly improve and address much-needed repairs in our school facilities, and more importantly our school, Malibu [High] will receive its fair share of the funds.”
Weinberg’s husband, Steve, said the BB funding issue was the “conversation on everybody’s lips.”
“And a lot of what one hears is what led the founders of our country to get together and form the Declaration of Independence; taxation without representation,” Steve Weinberg said.
Some other parents spoke at the meeting about Malibu forming its own school district, and there is a group of Malibu parents currently meeting privately to discuss the matter. Harry Keiley, president of the teachers union, said the school district “must find a way to stay unified at all cost.” He even offered the Santa Monica-Malibu Classified Teachers Association building for Santa Monica and Malibu parents to meet and sort out their differences.
“We have to send a message that we can stick together and work through our differences, and we can do what is in the best interest of our school district,” Keiley said. “There’s a lot more at stake than $14 million.”
The BB committee will meet for the first time in Malibu on Monday. The subject of Malibu High funding is on the agenda. The meeting takes place at 4 p.m. in the library at Malibu High, located at 30215 Morning View Drive.