The initiative to break from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is still in its infancy, but a feasibility study suggests Malibu could be ready for its own district. Some parents say this is a natural step in Malibu’s maturation as a city.
By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times
A group of education activists has planted the seeds for Malibu to secede from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and transform its four schools-three elementary and one middle school/high school-into an independent district. The group of about 16 parents, calling themselves the Malibu Unified School Team, or MUST, hired a consultant to assess whether Malibu meets the state criteria for establishing a district. And they say the answer was definitive: It does.
MUST’s action follows a tumultuous winter in which Malibu parents clashed with SMMUSD Superintendent John Deasy over his proposal to require 15 percent of all donations to the district and district schools be placed in a fund that would distribute money to all the schools based on a formula. The proposal has since been approved in concept by the SMMUSD Board of Education. But MUST members say the gift policy itself was not the impetus for commissioning the feasibility study.
“The way the debate was handled by John Deasy-not the policy itself, but the way it was handled-energized a group of people,” said MUST President Tom Sorce, who is also chair of Webster Elementary’s Site Governance Committee. “The gift policy itself is not a pivotal issue. It’s the realization that people are not empowered to have a voice at the local level.”
Malibu students comprise just 19 percent of the district population, “so the issues that come up before the SMMUSD board are Santa Monica-focused,” Sorce said. “Malibu has its own set of issues that have to be dealt with. And we think we can do that best with local control.”
MUST member Deirdre Roney, an education activist and former Malibu planning commissioner, echoed Sorce’s sentiments. “We wanted a voice in our children’s education,” she said. “And it’s not that Santa Monica is ill-intentioned. It’s just that we should decide our own future.”
The MUST parents hired former California State Board of Education member Tom Griffin to study the feasibility of a Malibu district. Griffin concluded that Malibu has sufficient student-body size, funding, and geographic distinction, and that its separation would not change the racial make-up or have a negative financial impact on Santa Monica’s schools.
However, creating a district is more complicated than fulfilling the state criteria. “Ultimately, it’s a political decision,” Sorce said. To get out of the gate, either the SMMUSD Board of Education or the Malibu voters would have to approve the district’s formation. After that, the decision would go to the county and then to the state.
“On a good day it’s a two-year process,” Sorce said. “On a bad day it’s a three- to three-and-a-half-year process.”
There is little indication whether the Board of Education, which is currently comprised of one Malibu resident (Mike Jordan, whose term concludes in November and is not seeking a second one) and six Santa Monicans, would support the split. The Santa Monica members could be wooed by the prospect of keeping within Santa Monica the entirety of the annual $6 million the city has agreed to donate to the district.
Malibu resident Kathy Wisnicki, who is running for one of three board seats being contested this November, said she did not know enough about the information MUST has collected to form an opinion. “Whether this goes through or not, I’ve always been trying to serve the district as a whole and I’m going to continue to do that,” she said. Wisnicki said Malibu had considered forming a district before, but “Malibu was never in a place where we could sustain ourselves, and that was always the bottom line.”
Maria Leon-Vazquez, a Santa Monican board member who is running for re-election, said she would be open to looking at Griffin’s analysis. “I think the bottom line of it is to ensure that the needs of the children in Malibu are being met,” she said.
Malibu City Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich, who emphasized education during her recent campaign, said she would be attending MUST’s public forum in August to gather information. “During my campaign I said I’d be open to the best education we can get for our kids,” she said, but added that she would look at the data before taking a stance.
Deasy, who in part was the catalyst for MUST, had little comment. “I’m unaware of the report,” he said. “I believe no board member is aware of it either and in matters like this I really remain neutral. This would be a citizen issue.”
MUST will hold a meeting to gather public input on Aug. 1. For information call 310.230.0602. Griffin will present the feasibility study and answer questions.