Santa Monica, Malibu Move Toward Divorce Settlement


A county committee on Saturday refused a Santa Monica request to kill an independent Malibu school district; afterward, officials in both cities embraced a potential settlement.

At the Sept. 18 meeting, LA County Office of Education’s special committee voted, 8-2, to have its staff examine the issue further, after rejecting an effort by the lone committee member from Santa Monica to kill the entire subject then and there. The county staff will now study finances, fairness and appropriateness of splitting the two distant cities’ common school district.

But in a surprising wrinkle, after the vote, negotiators from both sides told KBUU News that both sides were very close to terms on a divorce under terms that the Santa Monica side proposed three years ago. And SMMUSD School Board President Jon Kean—from Santa Monica—told KBUU he was open to restarting talks. 

The Saturday hearing was fast and complicated. Both sides disparaged the other; Malibu went first, with about 40 speakers given one minute each. Jo Drummond of Malibu said the Santa Monica representatives displayed a “selfish and gluttonous attitude,” alleging they, “do not care about Malibu families who suffer under such an unfair, unjust and hostile school system.”

Malibu High student leader Monica Reynaldo said differences between the two cities were “alarmingly apparent,” including educational opportunities not offered to Malibu students.

Even Santa Monica City Council Member Oscar de la Torre—once a school board member—chimed in on behalf of Malibu separation.

“I can tell you that the problems that the residents of Malibu face are real,” de la Torre said. “The lack of representation, the lack of respect. You know, I’ve seen it with the PCB fight; I’ve seen it with comments made by school board members in Santa Monica.”

Then came the Santa Monica contingent, which painted Malibu as elitist, racist and exclusionary. One Samohi senior said she was “afraid of the consequences if Malibu’s petition succeeds, especially underserved students.”

SMMUSD board members spoke sharply against Malibu. Board Member Jennifer Smith, appointed to represent both Santa Monica and Malibu, not only slammed Malibu, but made a statement that was contradicted by the county.

“It never entered my mind that a staff that advises on matters of education import would have recommended a petition that fails on eight out of nine criteria would be elevated for a more extensive review,” Smith said.

The county study, however, did not pass judgment on whether the Malibu petition passed the nine conditions set by state law. So far, the preliminary report found a lack of information on eight of those nine criteria.

Committee member Susan Solomon said those facts need to be determined and Malibu deserves to have a decision based on meeting or failing to meet those nine criteria.

“Even though they’re not substantially met, based on what you’ve written, it basically says that they’re inconclusive because that there’s not enough information,” Solomon said.

That is precisely the argument that Malibu made—and eventually won on.

Discussion by the committee members was cut short when one committee member, Barry Snell, made a sudden motion to just chuck it all out and kill Malibu’s independence drive then and there. Snell said Malibu started this petition drive in 2015 and should have reached an agreement with Santa Monica by now. 

Snell, as a member of the Santa Monica College Board—which presides over Malibu—is the only member of that county committee who gets voted on by Malibu voters.

His effort to kill the Malibu drive would likely play well among the Santa Monica constituents, who far outweigh the numbers of Malibu electors. And that numeric difference is the very heart of the issue to Malibu.

“Based on the time frame that they have had to negotiate this petition, that there would have been more information in relation to these nine criteria,” Snell said. “I would like to make a motion to deny the petition and ask the individuals on both sides to go back to the table, to negotiate this and give us a pathway to be able to ultimately see these two districts come up with plausible economical and equitable decisions.”

That motion failed, 8-2.

Malibu won a victory on Saturday, said Karen Farrer, the Malibu city council member who has been working on this for decades, but even if Malibu succeeds in its independence drive it will take years for the state’s department of education to process it. That means the two cities will have to live with each other, even though Malibu’s only school board member—Craig Foster—testified that this is a house bitterly divided.

“If two people go to divorce court and the court denies them a divorce, they don’t just go home and live happily ever after,” Foster said.

And both sides agreed that points to a big problem. Even if Malibu gets what it wants, it will take county bureaucrats and then the state office of education three to six years to process the independence petition.

In response to a reporter’s remarks that both sides have demonstrated acrimony and nastiness to each other, Kean agreed and added Santa Monica and Malibu will have to work with each other in the meantime.

“There is vitriol on both sides and I appreciate you saying that, because it brings to what I have realized, that we’re never going to realize who did what to which first,” Kean said. “And if we go down that pathway, all we do is inflame and inflame and inflame, and it becomes this binary path of politics that we’re stuck on now where are you either agree with me or you are an idiot.”

Malibu and Santa Monica may be very close to an agreement.

Speaking to KBUU after the meeting, Assistant City Attorney Christine Wood said Santa Monica had been negotiating in bad faith.

In that interview, Wood said Malibu actually accepted Santa Monica’s 2018 offer. On Monday, following a broadcast of Wood’s statements to that effect, the attorney clarified—yes, Malibu accepted the offer, conditional on a few contingencies.

“Your original question was whether or not the door was still open to negotiate, and the city has always maintained that the door is open to negotiating, except the city has requested and school services has recommended that the parties negotiate through third party arbitration,” Wood said Monday. “It’s important for the city that we do this because we felt like in the past that the district does not negotiate in good faith, and the city requires that the school district have something at stake in the negotiations as well.”

On Sunday, Kean said he would drive to Malibu “today” to ink the 2018 deal. On Monday, he said that despite the city’s Monday morning walkback, Malibu and Santa Monica were very, very close.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and some of those details are substantial, as the county pointed out Saturday.

For example: County negotiators brought up the old Measure BB and E bond issues from two decades ago. They paid to build a new campus at Santa Monica High School, but left Malibu High substantially unfinished.

And if there was a division of the two districts, Santa Monica would own the fancy Samohi buildings, which were underwritten with promises backed by Malibu tax revenue. So, who owns the debt?

By some estimates, $90 million in Malibu tax dollars were committed to pay off the bonds, which primarily benefitted Santa Monica school campuses. MHS was left unfinished, with Malibu now in its own sub-district to tax itself to finish the job,

The county may have to come up with a way to divide that property and debt, officials said Saturday. That was one of many details that would have to be dealt with, even if both parties agreed to the 2018 proposal.

Back at the county divorce court, the Saturday vote means another public hearing this fall, and then another study—this time on those financial details.

A version of this story was first broadcast by KBUU News.