School District Given Five More Years to Clean Up PCBs

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SMMUSD

The tentative harmony between the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Malibu seems to have broken once again over the handling of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

On Nov. 19, the school district filed a motion to secure a five-year extension of a court mandate to either replace pre-1979 door and window frames at Malibu High and Juan Cabrillo Elementary or cease using PCB-affected buildings by Dec. 31, 2019. 

On Dec. 21, the court granted the motion.

The move, right on the heels of the Woolsey Fire, came as a shock to members of the community—especially to those who filed the lawsuit that forced the mandate, who are part of the schools activist group America Unites (AU, formerly Malibu Unites).

“It was completely inconsiderate to the City of Malibu and what we were going through in going forward with this during the devastation,” Jennifer deNicola, AU president, said in a phone call with The Malibu Times—though school officials argued the decision was timely. In an email, SMMUSD spokesperson Gail Pinsker said, “From a legal perspective: Federal rules of civil procedure 60c requires that a motion must be made within a reasonable time, which was done immediately following the passage of Measure M.”

AU filed an opposition to the motion as well as numerous sworn declarations from teachers and staff, which state they were unaware of the possibility of a five-year extension.

The toxic compound has been the subject of controversy for more than half a decade. In 2013, the existence of PCBs—a known carcinogen—at Juan Cabrillo and Malibu High School was made public, sparking outrage.

Tensions rose among community members, leading AU to file a lawsuit against the district in 2016.

After much back and forth (and sky-high fees paid to lawyers, as reported previously by The Malibu Times), the community began to see progress in the form of the Malibu realignment plan, which would do as follows:

*Move Juan Cabrillo students to Point Dume Marine Science School

*Move Malibu Middle School students to the vacated Juan Cabrillo space

This would free up space for the demolishing and rebuilding of Malibu High.

Rebuilding MHS is not a new concept—the idea was brought up by consulting firm Environ back in 2015. At the time, former Environ Managing Principal Doug Daugherty said, “If you truly want to make sure you have a PCB-free structure, you’ve got to build a new structure.”

Back then, the issue was dead in the water due to a lack of funds. Now, Malibu has Measure M. 

The recently passed Measure M school facilities bond—with all $195 million—will head to Malibu schools.

Members of AU The Malibu Times spoke to said they did not regret campaigning for the bond prior to the general election; instead, they feel blindsided by this new five-year ask from the district.

In a statement shared by the school district, SMMUSD Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati said, “While discussing [the bond] with the Malibu Facilities District Advisory Committee (FDAC-M), the committee suggested that the district should suspend all remediation (court ordered) work and if the bond were to pass, rebuild the campus rather than abate the existing buildings.”

Caren Leib, a FDAC-M member, explained, “The belief from FDAC was that we would halt spending millions of dollars on remediating six buildings that would be torn down in the future … We just never discussed specifically an extension. It was an assumption by the district.”

SMMUSD School Board Member Craig Foster—Malibu’s only representation on board—described it as a collaborative process.

“This is a natural part of the bond process that, instead of spending a bunch of money to remediate the buildings and also the ‘Windows, Paint, Doors’ project, the district or we all decided—the residents of Malibu—decided to rebuild those buildings.”

“Having said that, building a brand new campus takes a while and therefore certain things need to be put in use,” he added.

The plan SMMUSD currently has includes moving classes out of affected buildings into other MHS classrooms, modifying Juan Cabrillo classrooms or portables in the future while conducting minor remediations on certain areas, not dissimilar to what deNicola and AU member Beth Lucas call a chess game. (More details about the plan can be found at www.smmusd.org.)

Now, the school activist group is worried kids and staff will be stuck in PCB-affected classrooms for years to come.

Foster said that would not be the case—“The five-year time horizon was never intended to be the timeline of moving the kids. That was the generic construction deadline that they included in the court filings.”

DeNicola, who is on the planning committee for Measure M, suggested moving all the kids and staff into portable classrooms while the district rebuilds Malibu High, a move that she believes would be “less money than [the district was] saying” it would be. 

“The district’s money is our money. This is coming out of our checkbook,” she said, adding, “We can be frugal and smart with this $195 million and build a new campus, a new public school for Malibu.”

The judge’s Dec. 21 ruling does come with stipulations; Among other points, SMMUSD is obligated to “Retain a third party environmental professional selected jointly by the District and plaintiff America Unites, to review compliance and results to insure interim safeguards are being maintained.”

DeNicola was not available for a comment following the court’s decision at press time on Friday, Dec. 21.