Criticism, praise for Point Dume charter petition

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The school board will vote on the petition Dec. 2. If the board rejects it and it is approved at either the county or state level, then the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District would have no connection, other than facilities use, with the charter school.

By Jonathan Friedman / The Malibu Times

A vast majority of the nearly 40 public speakers at last Thursday’s public hearing at Malibu High City Hall on the Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School (PDMSS) charter petition voiced support for the proposal. The Board of Education also heard from critics, including Juan Cabrillo Elementary School teachers concerned how the move would affect their school, and those who opposed the proposed sixth grade for Point Dume. The board will vote on the charter petition Dec. 2.

Charter status would transform PDMSS into a mostly independent institution with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District possibly remaining in an oversight role. The petitioners want the charter status because, among other reasons, they fear the SMMUSD plans to shut down PDMSS due to a dwindling student population.

Susan Baltrushes, a Juan Cabrillo teacher, was the only speaker adamantly opposed to the charter petition. Because the charter school would be open to anybody living within and outside the district (there is a tiered system to determine who gets to attend if there are too many requests, with neighborhood children getting first preference), she said many Juan Cabrillo parents would want to send their children to the new school.

“We fear at Juan Cabrillo a two-tiered educational system, a situation in which Point Dume will drain our student population, which will reduce our team, our support and our ability to serve our students,” Baltrushes said.

Jill Matthews, a Juan Cabrillo teacher and parent, as well as the wife of former Malibu High principal and SMMUSD administrator Mike Matthews, said PDMSS is a school of high achieving students with fundraising-skilled parents. She said students with these features at Juan Cabrillo might leave the school to attend the charter school. Matthews added that the sixth-grade feature should be dropped, unless the SMMUSD added a sixth grade to all the elementary schools.

Robyn Ross said in response to these criticisms that there is no plan to seek students from Juan Cabrillo or Webster elementary schools.

“One of our big concerns and one of our goals is to increase diversity on our campus,” she said. “So that’s going to mean reaching out to other areas where we have not been able to tap before.”

The sixth grade feature was intended for those students who might not be ready to attend Malibu High School. Several speakers praised this concept. Others said a Point Dume sixth grade could negatively affect Malibu High School, including job losses for sixth-grade teachers and a reduction in funding due to decreased daily attendance.

Jennifer Gonzalez, a Malibu High teacher, said a Point Dume sixth grade would be beneficial to some students.

“It is our responsibility to meet the needs of those students,” she said. “And if we don’t do that, then we are not fundamentally doing our job, regardless of teachers jobs or fiscal impact.”

Kimberly Bonewitz, co-PTA president for Juan Cabrillo, shared the same concerns as the school’s teachers. She said overall the Juan Cabrillo PTA favors the proposal.

“We’re in support because we think in about 12 months Juan Cabrillo is probably going to be in the same position and asking for a charter because what [PDMSS petitioners have] done is so exemplary, and we’re going to want the same for our students,” Bonewitz said.

Laurie Principe, Webster’s PTA president, said the charter school was the best idea for PDMSS, and that there was no reason this would lead to a mass exodus from other schools.

“The reality is we are very fortunate in Malibu to have only amazing schools,” she said. “Most families are very happy at their schools and have no intent to leave.”

Several speakers encouraged the board to approve the charter to ensure that SMMUSD still has a connection with the school. If the local board rejects the petition, the decision could be appealed to the county and then the state. If either of those boards approves it, then the county or state would be in charge of oversight, and the SMMUSD’s only connection to the school would be through facility usage.

PDMSS parent Jeff Mazzarella said, “I’m afraid that if the district doesn’t approve this and it goes on [to be approved at the county or state level], it will create an irreparable divide in the community that is unnecessary.”