School District Independence Now in the Hands of County Board

The opening slide of the City of Malibu's presentation to LACOE

The county heard Malibu’s argument; they heard Santa Monica’s. Now, it will take a month to deliberate and then decide if the city’s petition to separate from a Santa Monica-dominated school district will undergo studies and a vote—or if it’s dead in the Malibu waters. 

In early June 2021, the LACOE (LA County Office of Education) Committee on School District Organization will hold another meeting to determine if the separation is deemed viable. If the committee denies the petition at the June meeting, it’s back to the drawing board. If the committee approves the petition, it will conduct a series of studies and public hearings; then, the issue will go to a public vote. 

On Saturday, April 17, the committee met for three-and-a-half hours to hear a conflict that has gone on for a decade and shows signs of continuing longer: school district separation. Should Malibu be allowed to form its own school district, Malibu Unified School District (MUSD), leaving the larger Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) down the coast? During the meeting, which was attended by an estimated 300 members of the public, representatives from the City of Malibu and SMMUSD made their cases for why or why not LACOE should approve Malibu’s petition to create their own district. 

“Malibu students and residents are treated unfairly by the Santa Monica-centric school board. They clearly don’t understand the unique challenges we face as a rural community. When decisions are made about allocating resources, Malibu is out of sight and out of mind,” Malibu Mayor Mikke Pierson said. 

Currently, the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu share one school district, SMMUSD, separated by several miles of mountains. Malibuites have long been rankled that only 15 percent of the district’s voters live in Malibu, resulting in Santa Monicans dominating the seven-member school board and diverting funding to Santa Monica schools, leaving Malibu schools with fewer special programs and AP classes than their Santa Monica counterparts. 

Santa Monica advocates have argued that Malibu’s separation would result in a loss of funding for the district’s most vulnerable students. Crucially, the two parties disagree on the projected numbers each district would have based on taxes post-separation.

For years, the City of Malibu and SMMUSD tried to negotiate a split and form two financial plans for the new districts, but those efforts came up empty. 

“The school district has refused to compromise and continued to engage in inflammatory rhetoric,” Malibu City Council Member Karen Farrer, who has spearheaded the school separation efforts within Malibu, said, adding that the City of Malibu had even offered to let an independent third party decide the new funding models. 

SMMUSD Board of Education Vice President Laurie Lieberman said that SMMUSD respected Malibu’s desire to create its own school district, but not on the current terms. 

“We cannot support a proposal which would cause substantial and permanent harm to the 88 percent of the students who will remain with Santa Monica,” she said.

The City of Malibu must meet certain criteria set by LACOE and the state to form MUSD—at least one of which the city already acknowledges it will not. Currently, the city projects that it will have only 1,336 enrolled in its public schools during the 2020-21 school year, according to its presentation on Saturday, meaning it will not meet the benchmark of 1,500-student enrollment required to form a school district. But Malibuites argued that was exactly one of the reasons why it should be allowed to create its own school district—the fact that Malibu schools are underfunded, combined with the devastating effects of the 2018 Woolsey Fire, has forced families who might otherwise enroll in Malibu’s public schools to seek other options. 

SMMUSD School Board President Jon Kean refuted this, saying that the declining numbers were due to a lack of affordable housing options and an aging population. 

“This is not a case of ‘If you build it, they will come.’ The students are not there anymore,” Kean said. “They are not coming back any time soon, regardless of what we call the school district.”

Former Malibu Mayor Lou La Monte said that SMMUSD was the only noncontiguous school district left in California and would be illegal if formed today. Craig Foster, the only Malibu-based member of the SMMUSD school board, recounted a fateful night two years ago to illustrate how SMMUSD is ill-equipped to respond to Malibu-specific safety risks.

“As the Woolsey Fire raced southwest on the night of Nov. 8, 2018, all of our neighboring school districts in succession canceled school for Friday,” Foster said. “All three SMMUSD district leaders with the authority to cancel school in Malibu had already turned their phones off and headed to bed. As a result, my pleas to close schools so that Malibu parents, teachers and students could focus on the looming crisis went unanswered.” 

Malibu representatives said that after the split, the new SMUSD would still be the fourth-wealthiest school district per student in LA County, actually receiving more money per student than they currently do, while MUSD would become the third-wealthiest in the county and also receive more money per student. SMMUSD representatives, meanwhile, said that Malibu’s financial proposal would disproportionately impact students of color.

“I teach my students about the irreparable damage the historical practice of redlining had upon our state. I teach them stand up when you see an injustice, and in this proposal, I see both: an unjust practice which will disenfranchise a group by another group, that refuses to see the damage they will cause,” Claudia Bautista Nicholas, a teacher at Santa Monica High School, said. 

The date for the next hearing has not been set, but it is expected to take place in early June 2021.