Council member renews pursuit for Malibu school district


Board of Education members express support for a separate school district. Former state PTA president expresses caution, saying, ‘smaller isn’t necessarily better during these economic times.’

By Jonathan Friedman Special to The Malibu Times

Had Measure A, the unsuccessful Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District parcel tax proposal been only presented to Santa Monica voters, it would have passed. In Santa Monica, 66.85 percent of the voters voted “yes,” exceeding the two-thirds support needed for passage. But 53.06 percent support coming from Malibu voters drove the measure to failure. Malibu City Councilmember Laura Rosenthal told the Board of Education last Thursday, while speaking as a private citizen, that this was a signal “it’s time” to pursue forming a separate Malibu school district. At least one board member thinks separation would benefit both cities.

Rosenthal asked the board to support a resolution as soon as possible for the county to do a study on the feasibility of creating a Malibu district. Two years ago, a group she headed called Malibu Unified School Team, or MUST, began collecting signatures to force the county to do the study. But MUST was unable to gather the required amount due to members moving on to other causes and the capital projects funding dispute that had sparked the interest in a Malibu district coming to a mostly friendly conclusion. A board resolution would bypass the need to collect further signatures.

“I am challenging the board right now, this is the time again to look at separating the districts,” Rosenthal said. “And I think that perhaps Santa Monica is seeing as a result of this [Measure A’s loss] why it would help Santa Monica to separate and why it might help Malibu.”

Board member Ben Allen said at the meeting he would be interested in getting the process moving. Board member Oscar de la Torre said in an interview that Santa Monica and Malibu would benefit from separation.

“Then in Santa Monica we can have a laser light focus on closing the achievement gap, which Santa Monica has and Malibu does not have as much,” de la Torre said.

He added that it would allow Malibu residents to gain the local control they desire and which he said any community should be allowed to have. But de la Torre rejected the claims by some Malibu residents that they are marginalized in this district.

“Residents in Malibu are treated with a lot more consideration than Latino and African-American students and their families of Santa Monica’s Pico Neighborhood,” de la Torre said.

He continued, “I don’t buy it when anyone in Malibu says the school district has not done well by their students. We go far and beyond … The major crisis in public education in our district is not on how we serve Malibu students. The major crisis is how we fail to serve Latino, African-American and low-income students of all ethnicities.”

Rosenthal said it is a legitimate feeling in Malibu that its residents are marginalized.

“There are some board members who are very attentive to what happens in Malibu, but most are not,” said Rosenthal, who added that de la Torre is one of those who is not attentive to Malibu. “And Malibu is only looking for its fair share. There are many reasons why the schools in Malibu are good; many of them have to do with the parents and the teachers, and the atmosphere at the schools, and the many hours of volunteer time that many families put in.”

De la Torre disagreed with Rosenthal’s statement about him. He said he participates in speaking engagements in Malibu and visits the schools. He also said he supported Malibu High School in its dispute with neighbors over the sports field light issue.

De la Torre also noted as evidence of his support for Malibu that he has never voted against funding proposals for Malibu High School capital improvement projects. Although that is accurate, it should be noted that he abstained in 2008 from funding a middle school project at Malibu High after earlier in a meeting at that time he had failed to get enough support on the board for his proposal to take $1 million from the Malibu project and another $1 million from one in Santa Monica to put it toward John Adams Middle School, which has a high-number of students from low-income families.

Board President Barry Snell said in an interview after the board’s meeting last week that separation is something “that we need to take a look at and explore the possibilities.”

He said he “gets it” why Malibu residents would want their own district.

“I’m trying as much as possible to spend time in Malibu and make relationships there. I think it’s a constant thing that board members need to do.”

But Snell said it is a two-way street, and that Malibu leaders need to make an effort to get to know the SMMUSD leaders.

While some council members have done this, he said others have not. Snell said he was disappointed on a recent visit to Malibu when he ran into a council member, and the person did not appear to know who he was.

Pam Brady, a Malibu resident and former president of the SMMUSD Board of Education as well as the California State PTA, said her initial instinct regarding forming a Malibu school district is “caution, caution, caution.”

“Smaller isn’t necessarily better during these economic times,” Brady said. “The school districts having the hardest trouble during this economic situation are the smaller ones. And so it has to be very carefully thought out, and I’m sure the people involved would do that.”

As for why support for Measure A was so much lower in Malibu than it was in Santa Monica, there are various theories. Kathy Wisnicki, the last Malibu resident to serve on the board, said it was likely a statement by Malibu residents that they have a voice.

“I think that there are other more constructive ways to raise that voice than by causing the district to have to cut almost $8 million from next year’s budget,” she said.

There have been three other SMMUSD parcel tax elections since 2002, and Malibu has failed to reach the two-thirds threshold in all of them. The closest it came was in 2003, when nearly 60 percent of the voters supported Measure S, a $225-per-parcel tax.