SMMUSD, Santa Monica file lawsuit involving voting rights

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District administration office in Santa Monica, California. Photo by Samantha Bravo.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and the City of Santa Monica have jointly filed a lawsuit that challenges a new law intended to empower disenfranchised voters. This is the latest wrench in Malibu’s struggle for more representation in the district.

The new law (SB442), which was quietly enacted Jan. 1, authorizes the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization to approve a proposal to establish trustee areas and elect governing board members using district-based elections without submitting the resolution to the electors of the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu and the district for approval. The significance is that district voting rather than current at-large voting could be advantageous to Malibu. Voting in a block could certainly boost the chances of having a Malibu representative on the Board of Education. Craig Foster is Malibu’s only representative currently.

Having Malibu representation on the BOE has been a chief concern for residents and just one reason the city is seeking to break away from SMMUSD. Before Foster was elected seven years ago, there was no representative from Malibu on the BOE for the previous six years.

Malibu’s effort to establish its own school district has been ongoing for nearly two decades. To extricate the city out of the district, it filed a petition to start a separate district (unification). SMMUSD and the City of Malibu are currently in mediation to solve the tangled gulf that separating entails while ensuring both sides remain financially whole for years to come.

Foster was not present when the BOE agreed to challenge SB442. He was on a scheduled family trip when the board voted 6-0 to file the lawsuit. Foster had asked for a postponement. 

“I absolutely was disappointed that they moved forward with that discussion while I was unable to attend the meeting,” he said. “I would like to think that had I been there the outcome would have been different.” 

Foster sent a letter to the board president and superintendent outlining his objections. 

“Any dollar spent on this is a dollar not spent in the classroom which is where the money should be spent,” Foster added. “I would have voted against proceeding.”

The Malibu Times asked SMMUSD officials just how much money will be spent litigating SB442. Spokesperson Gail Pinsker replied the board approved $25,000 for legal counsel with another request in April for additional funds not to exceed $75,000. Since it is a joint lawsuit, the City of Santa Monica is using its staff lawyers and “supporting the district in the case.”

As a charter city, Santa Monica historically has conducted at-large elections, but the city is facing lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 to force it to move from general elections to trustee districts. One case is now before the California Supreme Court.

The CRVA states it “prohibits the use of an at-large election in a political subdivision if it would impair the ability of a protected class, as defined, to elect candidates of its choice or otherwise influence the outcome of an election.” 

Proponents have called CVRA’s district voting the highest form of democracy intended to give minority groups a voice and have their voting rights protected. Instead of majority rule for all parts of a city, with only the top vote-getters elected to power positions, cities would be divided into districts to elect representation for their interests. The goal is to give minority interests a proportional share of representation. 

“This case is not about whether SMMUSD Board members should continue to be elected at large or by trustee-area districts. It is about who should be entitled to make that decision,” School Board President Maria Leon-Vasquez said in a statement. “The City of Santa Monica and [the] district strongly believe the decision whether to move to trustee-area elections should be made by the residents and voters of SMMUSD, not by a committee composed of unelected representatives with little or no ties to either Santa Monica or Malibu.”

Foster does not agree. 

“This is not an acceptable way for the school district to be spending money that is intended to be spent” he said. “Anybody who feels strongly about this can reflect to the school district their view that this is not an appropriate use of district funds. 

“This is a distraction from focusing all of our attention on preparing our kids for college, career readiness, closing the achievement gap, and doing the things we’re supposed to do as a school district.”

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