School District Asks Committee to Guide Malibu Separation


The more the Board of Education knows about unification, the more they don’t know, but the idea is becoming closer to a potential reality.

Unification, a counter-intuitive name for the process the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District would undergo to split into two districts, will be guided in part by the district’s Financial Oversight Committee (FOC), a group of 11 volunteer members.

The end result would involve Malibu forming its own school district. District officials cannot afford to take on any additional tasks, said Superintendent Sandra Lyon, and she recommended that the FOC lead the charge.

Craig Foster, president of the Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS), the group pushing hardest for unification, is also a member of the FOC and has entered the race for Board of Education later this year.

He was very optimistic about the outcome of the meeting, noting that it’s becoming clear that unification could benefit both cities. The FOC spent much of the last year researching the potential impacts of the separation.

Board of Education members expressed a desire to be cautious moving forward but, according to Foster, were more open to the idea than they had been in the past.

The financial impact of unification is one major area of concern. All parties agreed that the outcome must not hurt either group of schools financially. Bond measures, approved district-wide, for both cities, would have to be dealt with to ensure that, at least in Santa Monica, they would not be impacted.

Division of assets and workforce would also have to be worked out. A study, paid for by AMPS, meant to determine the potential budget impacts is effectively obsolete thanks to a recent statewide change in funding models. FOC members, district officials, or a paid financial analyst will have to recalculate the impacts under the new funding model.

One piece of good news for fans of a separation is a recently discovered shortcut. Previously, all roads to unification ended with a blessing from the state – a blessing that could be cumbersome and timely to procure. Now district officials say they could go through the Los Angeles County Office of Education, a move that could save a lot of time. This route could require substantial analyses of the environmental impacts of a separation and may lead to mitigation measures, all at a cost to the district.

AMPS will cover these costs, Foster said.

This may be true, one FOC member said, but it would be the district that would sign the contracts. AMPS may also have to cover the cost of a specialist to assist the district and the FOC in understanding the financial impacts of the process.

“We all have day jobs,” said FOC member Paul Silvern. “We all provide a tremendous amount of pro bono services in lots of realms in addition to the service we provide to the school district and I don’t imagine that the FOC is going to be running cash flow scenarios for a separated Malibu or Santa Monica school districts. So ultimately the burden of the detailed work is going to have to fall on [district CFO] Jan Maez’s’ already full plate or I think the district is going to have to bring in another technical specialist to assist her and the FOC.”

Boardmember Ralph Mechur was tentatively optimistic about the direction the separation conversation was headed.

“If you look at this like two long-standing businesses that want to change the rules, in this case to separate and become two companies, but have been entwined together for 70 odd years or so, there’s a lot that need to be looked at and be resolved,” he said. “We might not even know some of the full extent of what might pop up.”

Boardmember Jose Escarce noted that answers to questions they thought they’d already answered seemed to be changing.

“The idea that there’s this shortcut process through the L.A. County Office of Education, maybe some of you have known about it for a while but it’s totally new to me,” he said, “and it certainly wasn’t mentioned when we met with L.A. County Office of Education, which is astonishing.”

He asked the FOC to try to answer the hardest questions first.

“The reason I bring that up is because, on the one hand I’m thinking maybe we’re converging on the right answer,” he said. “On the other, I’m thinking: Well are we? Or are we diverging from the right answer and that’s the one we had three years ago. At some point we need to have definitive right answers.”

Lyon noted that because the process is unique, there is no one path. This, she said, may mean that definitive answers are hard to come by. 

This story originally appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press.