District Procedural Breakdown Blamed for Gopher Issue

Gopher Holes at MHS

Rodenticides are officially out of Malibu schools — for now.

Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) leaders said Thursday that the district would be keeping poison bait boxes off the grounds of Malibu schools until a final policy decision is made, though it’s unclear how much of the decision was based on “screaming and complaining” from Malibu parents and stakeholders and how much was based on respect for the “different philosophies” of Malibu residents, according to district officials.

The SMMUSD Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program was discussed at great length — three full hours — during the Thursday, Oct. 1 Board of Education meeting in Malibu, following backlash over the spreading of strychnine and Fumitoxin at Malibu High and Webster Elementary schools this August in an attempt to clear playing fields of gophers.

Following the discussion, district leaders announced the use of poison will be discontinued in part of the district.

“For now, our management of pests, for gophers, it will be trapping,” SMMUSD Associate Superintendent Jan Maez told the School Board. “Our plan for the time is to not use bait boxes.”

“We have them in Santa Monica,” Acting Executive Director of Facilities, Maintenance and Operations for the district Carey Upton reminded Maez.

“We use them in Santa Monica,” Maez replied. “We will not use them here in Malibu.”

On Thursday evening, Upton gave a report on the current SMMUSD IPM program, which he claimed had not been fully implemented in the past, likely causing the current gopher problems in Malibu.

“Prior to 2014, our IPM program was low on non-poisonous alternatives and high on pesticides. In 2014-15, we stopped using any pesticides, but also did not work on the IPM program,” Upton explained.

Board Vice President Dr. Jose Escarce later questioned Upton about the results of the breakdown in procedure.

“I assume that’s why it got out of hand, is that correct?” Escarce asked.

“Yes, I think so,” Upton replied. “I think that during that time, when we had stopped using anticoagulants, had we gone right into using lesser poisons like Fumitoxin or strychnine, or gone into more aggressive trapping at that time, I think we never would have gotten to the place where we got.”

The discussion item divided the school board on philosophical grounds, with some arguing the board should shoot for a total ban on the use of rodenticide and pesticides, while others argued the board shouldn’t make promises they aren’t confident they can fulfill.

Escarce and Board Member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein argued about whether or not it would be good practice to write in a deadline for discontinuation of the use of pesticide.

“Do you want the policy to be that within a year … “ Escarce asked.

“Yes,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein immediately responded.

“I don’t understand how anyone could support that,” Escarce shot back.

Siding with Tahvildaran-Jesswein were Board Members Oscar De La Torre and Craig Foster. 

“The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth,” De La Torre loftily stated, saying Malibu and Santa Monica have “different challenges but also different philosophies.”

According to Upton, the City of Malibu also has different — difficult to please — parents.

When describing a problem with rodents in the kitchen of Malibu High School, Upton said the district held off on bait and trap boxes because of the Malibu public.

“At this time, we normally would have gone with bait boxes around the perimeter, though waiting for this meeting, we didn’t,” Upton stated. “We would also have gone with trap boxes, but the problem is, they look like bait boxes — and the screaming and complaining would happen.”

District staff is now charged with reviewing the three-hour discussion and coming back with an updated plan. According to Maez, input from Poison Free Malibu founder and The Malibu Times Dolphin Award winner Kian Schulman is also being taken under consideration. Schulman submitted a proposed plan to the district earlier in the week.

“We have already reviewed it, and we find a lot of commonality in our program. We [also] find some differences,” Maez said. “That is a resource. We’re not ignoring input from any source.”