Malibu City Council Approves Term Sheet for School District Split

The City of Malibu and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) have jointly agreed to a detailed framework and process to pursue the separation of the two territories into two separate school districts. 

In a 3-0 vote Friday, the Malibu City Council approved the self-styled Term Sheet with Bruce Silverstein abstaining and Steve Uhring absent. After years of negotiation, proponents of the Term Sheet argue that this is the closest Malibu has come to forming its own school district, a process confusingly called “unification.” 

A joint announcement was issued Friday as to the approval of the Term Sheet, which sets forth a conceptual, financial model that states it is intended to ensure maintenance of no less than the current level of educational programs to students in both territories, as well as a description of the agreements that the City and the District would need to finalize in order to effect unification, including a tax revenue sharing agreement, an operational transfer agreement, and joint powers agreement. The Term Sheet affirms the need for special legislation to assist in the implementation of the unification. Finally, the Term Sheet sets forth a detailed but nonbinding timeline for the process. Under its terms, the earliest Malibu could achieve educational autonomy would be July 1, 2024.

“After years of hard work and negotiations, we finally have a viable framework for an independent Malibu Unified School District,” Malibu Mayor Paul Grisanti said. “We would not be here without the hard work, dedication, and compromise made by the District and the City’s negotiating teams. Now that the Term Sheet has been accepted by both the SM-MUSD Board of Education and the Malibu City Council, I am hopeful that the process and framework set forth will guide us to the ultimate goal of two separate school districts.”

Some local observers online, however, argue that the Term Sheet amounts to little more than an agreement to agree, noting that the key elements in disentangling the District’s complicated and messy finances are punted to the three key agreements, all of which remain to be negotiated. 

Councilmember Silverstein wrote to The Malibu Times with a warning to read the “fine print.” Silverstein and others question the enforceability of the Term Sheet and the timing of the announcement right before a school board election. Silverstein described the Term Sheet as a compendium of “all of the things that the parties have failed to negotiate and agree upon for however many years they have been at it. As publicly noted by the City Attorney, three important agreements remain to be negotiated, and there is no guarantee that any of them, much less all of them, will be successfully negotiated, much less within the contemplated time frame. In essence, the Term Sheet is an unenforceable agreement to try to reach an agreement about multiple matters with respect to which the parties remain sharply divided.”

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In addition, Silverstein also stated, “I believe it is a clever political maneuver by the incumbent members of the School Board who are facing a tough election contest, and by two single-term Malibu City Council Members who would otherwise have nothing to show for their efforts to secure school separation as they leave office. Indeed, Karen Farrer has been working to achieve school separation for more than a decade, and I do not see the Term Sheet as moving the needle.”  

Silverstein continued, “It is obvious to me that the School Board proposed this putative agreement and pressed for it to be agreed upon with less than two weeks left before the 2023 General Election in an effort to save face and avoid the election of four insurgents who actually support school separation on terms that are fair and equitable to Malibu. The Malibu Council has played right into the School Board’s hands. If the incumbent school board members manage to survive the election with the publicity of their putative agreement providing a last-minute push, there will be no quick agreement, if there is any agreement at all.” 

As to the substance of the proposal, Silverstein cautioned, “There also is language in the Term Sheet that may prove problematic to Malibu down the line. As a lawyer, I know that words matter. I am hoping that my assessment of the Term Sheet is incorrect, but I am not sanguine that is the case.” Silverstein concluded, “In the final analysis, this is P.R. for the school board, P.R. for Karen Farrer, Mikke Pierson, and Paul Grisanti, and nothing of true value for the residents of Malibu or Santa Monica.”

Craig Foster, Malibu’s sole representative on the current SMMUSD Board, remains more optimistic. Foster, who is not seeking re-election, wrote to The Malibu Times, “It’s not a binding agreement. It’s a road map to a split where resolution of the major hurdle has been agreed in principle. All along, the goal was to be sure the deal was fair to the students in both cities. This deal is more or less the only deal that accomplishes that. Like any deal, they could argue they deserve more. And we could too. That’s how you know it’s a fair deal…A locally controlled school district is absolutely vital to the health of our city, and this puts that goal in reach and even gives it a possible start date. . . . The target date for MUSD to begin operation is indeed [July 1,] 2024—though that is a goal, not a guarantee.”

Foster underscored the ongoing community effort in unification, saying, “I’m extremely grateful to have been a part of getting to this point. There are so many people, really the entire Malibu community, who put their hearts and hopes into this goal; I am so proud of our city for having put our children at the center of their intentions and getting us here. Of course, it was this Malibu City Council, building on the work of prior city councils, that negotiated this agreement, and the full credit belongs to them. This was no easy task.”

The Term Sheet’s financial provisions are complex to the point of opacity. However, one key provision is a minimum annual compounded growth factor post-separation for the Santa Monica Unified School District, to be negotiated but stated as approximately 4 percent, to be paid with Malibu property tax revenue to the extent required to hit the target.

With the election for school board approaching, Foster emphasized, “nothing about this agreement changes our city’s support for Stacy Rouse, Angela DiGaetano, Esther Hickman, and Miles Warner in the Nov. 8 School Board election. If anything, electing Stacy Rouse et al. is more important than ever to ensure the smooth execution of this agreement and better governance in the meantime.”

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