Malibu wants its own school district, but a split from Santa Monica might require 'alimony'

The city of Malibu turns 25 years old this month, and leaders of the famous 21-mile stretch of coastline have a birthday wish: their own school district.

Malibu has spent years trying to secede from the school district it shares with Santa Monica, its relatively upscale — if not Malibu-wealthy — neighbor to the south.

Now residents are closer than they've ever been to a separation. They've gathered the required signatures to petition for the split and persuaded the school district to appoint a committee that would negotiate a breakup.

But as representatives for both cities met this week to iron out logistics for such negotiations, it became clear that uncoupling the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District could prompt the kind of high-priced, hyper-detailed legal wrangling that marks any stormy, high-profile divorce.

The district's most recent projections show that Santa Monica students would be the financial losers under such a separation. It would receive about $9,500 per student, which is less than it would get if the district remained whole.

Malibu, which has three elementary schools and a high school, would get nearly $14,000 per student by 2017-18, district estimates show.

School Board President Laurie Lieberman said that both sides want to reach an agreement that would allow Malibu to split off, but that it can't come at the expense of Santa Monica children.

"We exist to serve all of our students, and we can't very well say, 'You want to be your own school district for your own reasons … and we'll support that to the detriment of the remaining students,'" Lieberman said.

Threats of educational secession have surfaced in cities including Dallas and Memphis, but the proposed split in Southern California is unusual because it features two wealthy beach communities in a high-performing school district.

In this case, Malibu is the richer spouse with a median income of more than $130,000 a year, nearly double the average household earning power in Santa Monica.

Most students in Malibu are white and only about 11% are poor.

Santa Monica schools are more diverse, and about 30% of students come from economically disadvantaged families.

Santa Monica should not be confused with a poor town. The wealth in both cities easily outpaces the county average, which shows two-thirds of students are poor.

Still, Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal said the city's differences merit a split.

Rosenthal describes Malibu as a tight-knit rural community that worries about transportation for students who live up to 20 miles from the nearest school and has environmental concerns about land use in an area celebrated for its scenic vistas.

On the other hand, she said, Santa Monica is urban and must focus on how to tailor its education system to serve larger campuses with a greater concentration of children in poverty.

"The district is spending a lot of time and energy having to deal with concerns in Malibu that should rightly be spent in Santa Monica," Rosenthal said. "They have a lot of educational challenges that we don't and vice versa."

Over the years, Malibu has compiled a long list of grievances against the 11,000-student district.

Malibu residents complain that they lack representation in a district where more than 80% of the students are from Santa Monica.

They still bristle at the fact that the district and the county rejected their attempt to convert Point Dume elementary school into a charter.

Many argue that the district has not done enough to remove polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that were found in some Malibu schools.

And parents were roiled years ago after the district prohibited PTA groups from raising funds to hire staff, including teacher's aides, at individual schools.

Before the policy passed, some schools, particularly in Malibu, were raising up to $2,000 per student, while others were bringing in less than $100 per child.

Lori Whitesell, a parent of two children at Santa Monica High School, defends the decision to require most money raised by parents to go into a districtwide pot that is then distributed more equally among all schools.

"Every child's experience, no matter what school they go to, should be comparable. It shouldn't matter whether your child goes to school in Malibu or Santa Monica," Whitesell said.

Negotiating a split won't be easy.

A committee that includes the mayor of Malibu, two lawyers and members of the district's financial oversight committee must figure out how to keep Santa Monica students from being woefully shortchanged by the deal, how to allocate bond debt and how to relieve Santa Monica from a lawsuit alleging that the district has not properly removed contaminants from some Malibu schools.

An agreement between Malibu and Santa Monica could help in the years-long process to become independent but provides no guarantee.

Such a split requires approval from the county and state education departments and must go to voters for a final blessing.

Some California districts have successfully split but many have failed.

In the early 1990s, for example, voters in three South Bay cities — Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach — approved an effort to reorganize.

The city of Carson, on the other hand, jumped through various procedural hoops in its effort to separate from the Los Angeles Unified School District only to have its plan rejected by voters in 2001.

Malibu residents say they will continue to push forward. They have even suggested working out an agreement in which Malibu would pay millions of dollars in losses that the breakup could cost Santa Monica.

"One of the school board members literally shouted out in a meeting, 'We want alimony,'" said Craig Foster, the sole Malibu resident on the school board. "So, we're trying to get them some alimony so we can start our new life afresh."

zahira.torres@latimes.com

Twitter: @zahiratorres

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 11, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Malibu wants out of this school district marriage" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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