Self-imposed deadline missed on unification timeline for an independent Malibu School District

Santa Monica-Malibu School District officials will meet for mediation scheduled this week 

A mediation meeting is scheduled for later this week in the ongoing saga of separating Malibu schools from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. The SMMUSD and the City of Malibu issued a joint announcement last October after nearly two decades of studies, agreements in concept, and legal issues, which suggested that there had been a major breakthrough in the City of Malibu’s quest for separation, which is legally called “unification.” The announcement and an accompanying Term Sheet were issued just days prior to the election of SMMUSD school board members. 

Under the Term Sheet, the parties were left to hammer out three major written agreements: a tax revenue sharing agreement, an operational transfer agreement, and a joint powers agreement as part of an exhaustive effort to effect the complicated process of the divorce. Looming large was the issue of how future taxpayer funding would ensure no less than the current level of educational programs to students in both territories. The October joint statement also detailed a framework to achieve an independent Malibu School District by including self-imposed deadlines in order to keep the process moving forward with the earliest possible date for Malibu autonomy of July 1, 2024. 

When the joint statement was announced last fall, then-Malibu Councilmember, now Mayor Bruce Silverstein told The Malibu Times he didn’t see the Term Sheet “as moving the needle.” By contrast, in the days before the school board election, incumbent board member and Santa Monica resident Jon Kean authored a letter to the editor published at his request in TMT stating Malibu residents should “just accept victory” and that the operational and Joint Powers Agreements yet to be hammered out “are not stumbling blocks.” Kean also stated “the revenue sharing formula … is fully expressed in the agreement.”

The Malibu Times has made repeated attempts to ask Kean to clarify his position that the revenue sharing formula as described in the Term Sheet represents a “victory” for Malibu, as the proposed formula appears to guarantee Santa Monica a 4 percent per capita student funding increase compounded annually for the next several decades, with any funding deficits to be covered by transfers of Malibu property taxes to the Santa Monica School District. By contrast, the proposed revenue sharing agreement as outlined in the Term Sheet does not provide any target growth for Malibu student funding or even an expectation that Malibu funding will remain at current levels.

Kean also asserted in his election-eve letter to the editor that this is “an equitable financial model for both sides.” As Santa Monica High School is consistently rated higher than Malibu High School (# 108 vs #174 in California, see usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/california), The Malibu Times asked Kean if he could explain to Malibu residents why, in his view, this transfer of school funding from Malibu to Santa Monica, without regard to school rankings, standardized test scores, or other measures of academic parity is equitable. 

Kean has declined to comment.

After repeated requests for a statement from the SMMUSD for an update after the Jan. 15 deadline for completion of initial drafts of the agreements passed without word, the district issued a statement March 9. It reads as follows:

JOINT STATEMENT FROM CITY OF MALIBU AND SMMUSD 

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and City of Malibu have continued to work together to complete the deliverables outlined in the Term Sheet executed last fall. Specifically, the parties are drafting two significant and complicated agreements: a Tax Revenue Sharing Agreement and an Operational Agreement. The parties and their jointly-appointed mediator are scheduled to meet together in person at the district office on March 21, 2023 to work jointly on a few of the agreements’ remaining issues.

While the District remains firmly committed to unification, there have been several challenges and issues external to unification that have placed significant demands on the District’s time and finite resources. Nevertheless, the parties remain committed to completing the remaining tasks identified on the Term Sheet and to the projected end date, which remains achievable at this time.

One of the challenges referred to in the statement appears to be the unexpected resignation and departure of Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati, who took a position with the Bellflower Unified School District.

When pressed for more details on missed deadlines, The Malibu Times, in a spirit of transparency, has made several requests of the district for comment. A spokesperson would say only that both sides are working earnestly, that the joint statement “speaks for itself,” and that the district will reach out to stakeholders “when there is something to report.”

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