School District Separation: Questions and Answers

SMMUSD Administrative Offices

On Nov. 24, 2020, The Malibu Times received a districtwide email on behalf of SMMUSD Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati with a list of 10 FAQs (frequently asked questions) and answers about the school district separation. The FAQs are also posted on SMMUSD’s website.

The choice of questions asked, as well as many of the answers, appeared to be talking points in favor of Santa Monica’s position of not splitting the district. There did not appear to be any attempt by the Santa Monica-based SMMUSD to speak to anyone in Malibu for input on the FAQs. In order to provide balance, The Malibu Times presented those same 10 questions to Malibu’s group of representatives. Below is a selection of the original school district FAQs, placed alongside the responses to those same questions written/approved by Malibu’s representatives. 

Malibu’s consultants and representatives on this project are: Christine Wood of Best Best & Krieger Law, Deputy City Attorney for the City of Malibu; LaTanya KirkCarter, Kirk Carter & Associates, who provides the financial model for reorganization; Cathy Dominico, Capitol Public Finance Group, managing partner, strategic consulting, tax demographe; Terri Ryland, Ryland School Business Consulting, founder and president; Reva Feldman, Malibu city manager; and Karen Farrer, Malibu City Council member.

Q: How long has the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (“SMMUSD”) been serving families in the Santa Monica and Malibu communities?
SM: The district was first organized in 1875, 11 years before the City of Santa Monica was incorporated in 1886. Students from Santa Monica and Malibu have attended district schools since the district’s formation.
Malibu*: It’s not clear that Malibu had anything to do with Santa Monica schools up until 1953. There were not many, if any, school age children in Malibu in the 1800s, since most of the land was a private ranch owned by one family up until about 1928. Malibu’s first school, Decker School, was about 30 miles from Santa Monica and operated on its own for more than 40 years, beginning in 1911. Students K-8 shared a traditional one-room schoolhouse in Decker Canyon until Malibu joined the Santa Monica School District in 1953. The unification was never comfortable for Malibu, which unsuccessfully attempted to separate the districts again in 1980, when Malibu residents were angered by the closure of Point Dume Elementary School, among other issues. Subsequent unsuccessful secession attempts were made again in the 1990s and in 2004. The latest quest for separation began back in 2011 and continues to this day. More importantly, the organization of Santa Monica and Malibu into a single school district would now be prohibited under current Education Code section 35543 since the two cities are non-contiguous areas.
*Thanks to local historian Suzanne Guldimann.
Q: What does the City of Malibu petition for unification seek?
SM: The city’s petition requests the division of SMMUSD into two separate school districts–one serving the students in Santa Monica, the other serving the students in Malibu. The petition also seeks adoption of a formula for funding of the new districts that would disproportionally harm the students who attend Santa Monica schools. As proposed, the petition would provide less per pupil funding for Santa Monica students who would attend a newly created SMUSD than those same students would receive if SMMUSD were to remain. At the same time, the per pupil funding of students who would attend Malibu schools in a new MUSD would increase substantially.
Malibu: Malibu maintains that there would be no negative effect on the fiscal status of the future districts after separation. They say state and local per-pupil funding for both districts would actually exceed the current per-pupil funding of SMMUSD, when accounting for all operating revenues. Local per-pupil funding for Santa Monica students, after a separation, would give it one of the highest per-pupil spending in the local area, because Santa Monica would maintain most of its current revenue with 15 percent fewer students.
Santa Monica asserts “the petition would provide less per pupil funding for Santa Monica students who would attend a newly created SMUSD than those same students would receive if SMMUSD were to remain.” This assertion is based on a standard that is not part of the nine criteria set by the legislature for the separation of school districts. Additionally, it is unreasonable to think that once the districts split that the per pupil funding must remain equal. All California school districts have different per pupil funding levels based on their demographics. The state requires that neither district be worse off, but does not require equal funding between districts.  Probably most importantly for Santa Monica, the numbers show that the per pupil funding would increase above the current level for a win-win.
Q: What is the SMMUSD’s position on the City of Malibu’s Petition?
SM: The district’s board of education opposes the city’s Petition.
Malibu: A key finding of the city’s consultants is that the school district’s analysis goes beyond what’s typically required for reorganization, and is unfair to the Malibu community. Malibu’s consultants recommend sticking to the California Department of Education’s (CDE) criteria as prescribed in the education code for guidance on how to allocate funding.
That’s one of the reasons why, on Oct. 12, the Malibu City Council voted unanimously to stop negotiating with Santa Monica SMMUSD directly and petition for school separation instead to the LA County Office of Education (LACOE) Committee of School District Organization.
Santa Monica’s proposal permanently transfers a large portion of Malibu’s property taxes to Santa Monica schools that would otherwise go to Malibu Schools.
The governing board of SMMUSD is comprised predominately of representatives from the Santa Monica community, with only one board member from the Malibu community.  The board’s focus is on the welfare of Santa Monica students, which is one of the main driving forces behind separation. Residents of Malibu are not adequately represented by the SMMUSD governing board due to its at-large system of election and, therefore, their concerns about the policies and practices of the district go largely unaddressed. Even more recently, we see the disparity in the representation of Malibu interests by district officials including Superintendent Drati. With local control and an independent Malibu Unified School District, spending on educational programs, student support and school facilities can be driven by the needs of the Malibu community, which differ vastly from the needs of the Santa Monica community.
Q: Why does the SMMUSD oppose the City of Malibu’s petition?
SM: The City of Malibu’s petition seeks to divide the district in a way that fails to address significant equity and access concerns. Specifically, the city petition results in an inequitable division of funding and promotes the creation of a district with a significantly less diverse student population.
The division as proposed would harm the most vulnerable students in both communities, jeopardizing service delivery, including programs for special education students, English learners and at-risk students. Unification, in the manner currently proposed by the City of Malibu in its petition, will have a significant negative impact on climate and culture.
Our projections show Malibu starting at $27,651 per student, while students in Santa Monica would be funded at $13,759. In year five, Malibu students will receive $37,599 per student, while Santa Monica per student funding will be $15,486: a five-year growth rate of 36 % in Malibu vs 13% in Santa Monica.
Malibu: Malibu’s projections are completely different, showing Malibu starting with about $17,000 per student and Santa Monica with about $14,000. By 2023-4, Malibu has $26,000 per student while Santa Monica goes to $15,000. Both districts receive more money per pupil than they would have as a unified district throughout the time period.
LaTanya Kirk Carter said the Malibu-proposed tax sharing agreement would transfer just enough taxes to Santa Monica so that Santa Monica wouldn’t be harmed, and that the state wouldn’t have to kick in any additional money. “Per pupil funding would actually go up for Santa Monica,” she emphasized, “due to their additional local funding sources, like Santa Monica sales tax. Santa Monica would remain just as good, if not better, than before the split. Santa Monica and Malibu are both in the top five of the funded districts in LA County when it comes to per-pupil spending.”
The students that are in Malibu schools will remain in Malibu schools, thus whatever diversity currently exists will remain. It is not common for students that live in Malibu to attend schools in Santa Monica and vice versa, as these communities are geographically separated. There is no evidence that programs or service delivery for special groups of students would be negatively affected.
Q: Where does funding for the SMMUSD currently come from and how have Malibu students benefited from the current funding model?
SM: The students and communities of Santa Monica and Malibu enjoy a unique and diverse portfolio of general fund revenues–many of which originate exclusively from the Santa Monica community–as detailed below. These revenues support both communities, with per pupil expenditures in Malibu exceeding the per pupil expenditures in Santa Monica. The per pupil expenditures in terms of human resources, transportation, materials, and programs are currently: $9,856 per student in Malibu and $7,606 per student in Santa Monica. The most visible reflection of the difference in expenditures between the two communities is in the class size average/teacher ratio:
18 students per teacher in Malibu elementary schools
22 students per teacher in the Santa Monica elementary schools
23 students per teacher in the Malibu secondary schools
27 students per teacher in the Santa Monica secondary schools
Malibu: Both Santa Monica and Malibu schools have some of the lowest class sizes in Los Angeles County, the per pupil expenditures totals differences in the individual cities could be a result of efficiencies. After separation, the more expensive schools in Malibu would be the responsibility of the new Malibu district, saving Santa Monica money on a per pupil basis.
Q: Is there a significant difference in achievement between the schools in Malibu and the schools in Santa Monica?
SM: No. Both Santa Monica and Malibu schools are highly ranked by every publication that ranks California’s public schools, and with good reason. U.S. News and World Report has named both Santa Monica High School and Malibu High School as Top High Schools in the nation and state, reporting Samohi with the ranking of 914 in the nation and 134 in the state and Malibu High School for rankings of 817 and 125, respectively in 2019.
In terms of academic achievement, Newsweek ranks Malibu High at 1371 and SAMOHI High at 981 in the 2020 National Rankings. Their California rankings are 193 and 139, respectively.
Malibu: It is anticipated that both school districts would remain high ranking and competitive. What is believed could happen is Malibu schools would enjoy some of the enriched curricular options currently only offered in Santa Monica Schools, e.g. additional foreign languages, more honors and advanced placement classes. These programs, and others, are in high demand in the Malibu community. With local control, Malibu USD would be able to determine what educational programs would be best suited for Malibu students.
Q: What would the resident demographic composition by enrollment be of each new district if SMMUSD is divided as proposed by the City of Malibu?
SM: As proposed, Malibu USD will become a significantly less diverse district, while receiving a significantly higher per pupil revenue.
Malibu: The Malibu Unified School District would retain the diversity the Malibu schools currently have. The students that currently attend, would continue to attend and any inter-district permits would continue. 
Q: What happens to interdistrict transfer permit students, who make up almost 14% of the current enrollment in Malibu, if the city’s petition is granted?
SM: A newly created Malibu Unified School District would need to decide how to deal with current interdistrict transfer permit students, who currently increase diversity. There is no mechanism in place to guarantee the acceptance of any future interdistrict transfer permits in a newly-created Malibu Unified School District. In fact, as a smaller, basic-aid district with higher expenses, there is actually a financial disincentive to accept new interdistrict transfer permit students.
Malibu: Santa Monica cannot project what would happen with the polices adopted by a new Malibu Unified School Districts governing board and administration. Additionally, there are  protections in [the] education code to keep students from being denied interdistrict permits from districts they currently attend.
Q: What is the process for determining whether the City of Malibu can create its own school district for its residents?
SM: The LA County Committee on School District Organization (“committee”) is the governing body that reviews and approves such proposals. Since the city initiated the petition, the committee will conduct at least one “preliminary hearing” where it will decide whether to “tentatively” approve or deny the proposal. If “tentative” approval is obtained, then a series of public hearings are held in the territories to be reorganized, ultimately culminating in a final approval or disapproval from the committee (decision may be appealed to the California State Board of Education.) If the proposal is denied at the “preliminary hearing” the process concludes, resulting in a final denial of the proposal.
If approved (and after the exhaustion of appeals, if any) then an election is called where the voters can decide whether or not to approve the proposal. Whether the voters will consist of all of the voters in the entire SMMUSD or only the voters in the City of Malibu will be determined at a later point in time.
Without the benefit of a mutual agreement between the City of Malibu and the SMMUSD, the entire process can take several years.
Malibu: Although the city agrees with the district’s explanation of the process, the city has noted that the district has frequently taken positions that prolong the process. For example, when LACOE was scheduling the date of the upcoming “preliminary hearing,” the district advocated for putting the hearing off indefinitely due to the need to have the hearing virtually, when in fact the preliminary hearing should be somewhat of a formality to ensure the petition is sufficient enough to advance through the entire statutory process. This is notable because maintaining the status quo and delaying this process is in the district’s best interest but continues to deny Malibu residents and students an independent school district focused on their community’s unique needs.
Q: What is the City of Santa Monica’s position on the City of Malibu’s Petition?
SM: Santa Monica City Council voted, 7-0, on Nov. 10, 2020, to send a letter to LACOE affirming support for the split, but only if the terms of the separation, including but not limited to the division of revenues and assets, are “fair and just” to students in Santa Monica schools and provides robust and equal educational opportunities for both Malibu and Santa Monica students.
Malibu Herein lies the City of Malibu’s entire argument: This is the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District, but time and time again, the school district does not care about or abide by the wishes of its students from the City of Malibu, the parents of Malibu or the community of Malibu. Malibu’s wishes are in effect silenced by lack of representation and lack of concern for the wishes of the Malibu parents. Does not SMMUSD superintendent, administration, and governing board have a responsibility to hear wishes of its Malibu students, parents and community?