Malibu City Council Presses Forward on Independent School District

Malibu Elementary Collection

After more than a decade of strategizing and failed negotiations with representatives from the City of Santa Monica, Malibu City Council on Oct. 12 voted unanimously to end fruitless negotiations and instead to go forward with its petition to the Los Angeles County Office of Education to separate from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) and form a Malibu Unified School District. 

For about three years, council members have spearheaded separation negotiations on behalf of Malibu as part of a council ad hoc committee. Now that negotiations have ended, council members are working to bring the community up to speed on what comes next.

Current committee members, council members Rick Mullen and Karen Farrer, presented a virtual town hall Wednesday evening to address how the city intends to move forward with district separation—a process known as “unification” of a new school district.

“This is an issue that’s very near and dear to me,” Farrer—a former president of Malibu school advocacy group AMPS (Advocates for Malibu Public Schools)—declared in opening remarks. “I understand first-hand how having a school district that is headquartered in Santa Monica with a significant geographic and cultural divide from Malibu is not serving Malibu students. Our students will be better served when Malibu families have a strong voice in determining the educational programming and educational facilities that our children receive.”

Four consultants working for Malibu gave a presentation on how the city is prepared to meet the financial criteria for unification. The complicated financial entanglements and demands from Santa Monica have held up the separation of the district. A key issue was the division of property taxes.

“Property taxes are a major funding source,” according to consultant La Tanya Kirk Carter. According to Kirk Carter, a “permanent redistribution” of money from Malibu to Santa Monica would give Santa Monica $250 million of Malibu’s property tax dollars within the first decade after separation. In the first 50 years, that number flowing from Malibu to Santa Monica would have reached $4 billion. That number far exceeds what is considered normal by the LA County Office of Education (LACOE), Kirk Carter said.

“The property tax split would not be based upon how it’s traditionally split amongst school districts, which is assessed valuation,” Kirk Carter said. “We couldn’t find common ground.”

Consultant Cathy Dominico claimed there will be no additional cost to the state with a temporary adjustment of property tax revenue from Malibu to Santa Monica until Santa Monica is able to reach what’s known as a “basic aid” level of funding on its own. Addressing concerns raised by SMMUSD Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati concerning future inequities he anticipates after a district separation, Dominico disagreed with his interpretation, pointing out that there will be fewer students to serve in a Santa Monica-only system. 

“Each district would be in a better position than they are today,” Dominico opined. 

“The per-student funding for both districts would end up being higher than if nothing were to happen,” according to consultant Terri Ryland. The consultants even predicted that more Malibu students lured away to private schools will return with local control.

Drati had also previously criticized Malibu City Council’s action “at a time when we are all addressing a worldwide pandemic.” That complaint was ridiculed many times at the town hall. Dominico said the process could take years and would likely happen well after the pandemic is behind us. Other districts going through separation have taken up to 20 years to complete.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” she said, further adding, “The timeline is very dependent on external forces. Are we looking at 20 years? We’ve eaten into a lot of that time already.” The best possible—however unlikely—scenario is that separation would take at least four years, by Dominico’s estimation. It was likely that legal challenges would delay action.

“A number of things need to happen,” consultant Christine Wood reminded. “We are walking a path that is least treaded”—since many levels of government education bodies will have to approve Malibu’s petition— “this is not the most common of ways to unify.”

After the presentation, questions were taken from some 70 participants tuned into the meeting. Siugen Constanza, Boys and Girls Club of Malibu director of community outreach, asked if Malibu staff would lose tenure or employment status under unification. The panel answered there would be no changes. The panel also confirmed that any intra-district transfer student enrolled at the time of unification would be allowed to continue matriculation. A new Malibu Board of Education will then take over those decisions.