Council: Explore new school district

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Two city councilmembers are going to meet with school district and City of Santa Monica officials to build consensus on a plan to explore the breakup of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

A movement to explore a separate Malibu school district is officially underway, as the Malibu City Council on Monday lent its support to explore a petition to dissolve the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. But while a majority of speakers supported the measure, one parent and one city councilmember raised concerns about the ability of the Malibu community to finance its own school district.

The council’s unanimous vote authorized Mayor Laura Rosenthal and Mayor Pro Tem Lou La Monte to begin negotiations with the SMMUSD Board of Education and the Santa Monica City Council. Should each of those bodies agree to support a study into the dissolution of the school district, the agreement would be taken to the county office of education.

The Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization would then conduct a feasibility study to determine if separate Malibu and Santa Monica school districts are viable.

“We believe it’s time for the two cities and the school district-the board of education and the superintendent-to work together and to get enough information to work on an agreement to see if this is going to be viable,” Rosenthal said.

School board Vice-President Ben Allen has gone on record in support of breaking up the school district, while others have not discouraged Malibu from exploring the possibility.

While most of the speakers at the meeting supported the measure, resident Mike Sidley said it would be a mistake to break away from SMMUSD because Malibu schools currently enjoy a hefty subsidy from taxes from the City of Santa Monica.

“I think it’s an ill-conceived idea and I think it’s something that Malibu cannot afford to undertake at this time,” Sidley said, adding that “it’s no mystery” why people in Santa Monica would want to jettison Malibu from the school district.

According to Sidley, the City of Santa Monica contributes about $13.5 million to the operation school district through joint-use agreements of school facilities and parcel taxes, some of which goes to support the four Malibu public schools. Sidley questioned whether Malibu voters would pass a parcel tax extensive enough to make up for the lost funding from Santa Monica.

But Stephen Perl, a banker with three children in the school district, disputed Sidley’s numbers.

“I don’t think he has those numbers in black and white, because we were at the last two [board of education] meetings of the Santa Monica school district and [the board] didn’t even know the information to half the questions we were asking,” Perl said.

Perl said he had gotten the impression after talking with Boardmember Nimish Patel that members of the school board were intent on separating from Malibu by any means.

“These guys in Santa Monica are going to keep pushing and pushing, until they squeeze us out,” Perl said.

Rosenthal said she and La Monte wanted to study financial figures from the school district, which they said have until now been withheld from members of Malibu because there is no Malibu resident currently serving on the school board.

Councilmember John Sibert supported the measure for that reason.

“The problem we’ve always had [in previous attempts to explore a separate school district] is we didn’t have any information,” Sibert said. “We didn’t know where the money was. We’ve heard all sorts of assertions, but we’ve had no evidence. We have nothing in our hands that would allow us to make decisions.”

City Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich said she would support the measure, but questioned if a Malibu school district would ultimately be viable without an enormous parcel tax increase.

“I foresee this costing a lot of money if we’re going to do it right,” Ulich said. “If we’re going to do this, the City of Malibu is going to have to step up. There’s no if, ands or buts, in my opinion.”

Consultants may need to be hired for the study, and polling may have to be done, although Rosenthal said that would be paid for with funds raised from private donors.

City Attorney Christi Hogin said that as a municipality, the City of Malibu was legally forbidden from spending money on public education. The city council, however, was within its legal rights to allow Rosenthal and La Monte to investigate the petition, as long as they did not spend city money doing so.

Malibu has been without a representative on the SMMUSD Board of Education since 2008.

The vote at Monday’s city council meeting came one night before the school board was expected to approve a controversial measure that would centralize fundraising in SMMUSD, preventing individual parent teacher associations from giving directly to their schools. The measure has been protested vigorously in Malibu, where PTA funds support a range of programs that Malibu parents fear could be dismantled should it pass.

City Council notes

State Senator Fran Pavley awarded Malibu with the first Sustainable City Award

Residents Denise and Daniel Villefort announced they would add $2K to the city’s $5K reward for mountain lion killers.

The council authorized an Environmental Impact Report to study parcels for rezoning of properties to comply with state low-income housing laws.

Established a policy that the city keep a reserve at all times equal to half its operating budget.

Authorized Mayor Laura Rosenthal and Mayor Pro Tem Lou La Monte to pursue a petition establishing a separate Malibu school district.