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Malibu High Proposal Sparks Fierce Debate : Education: Malibu parents want it. Many Santa Monica parents don’t. There’s even talk of splitting the district in two.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This month, Malibu got its own city. Next month, maybe it will get its own high school--or perhaps its own school district.

Whether a high school should be opened near Zuma Beach has divided the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District as no other issue has before.

Santa Monica residents say the idea is ill-conceived and fiscally irresponsible. Malibu parents, whose children now have to go to Santa Monica High, say it’s time they had a local high school. Latinos in Santa Monica, whose children would be recruited to Malibu for racial balance, charge that they are pawns.

The Malibu City Council supports creating the new school. The Santa Monica City Council cautions the school board to analyze what the effect would be on Santa Monica High, now the district’s only high school. There’s talk of splitting the district in two.

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The issue has spawned long and contentious public hearings. Proponents and opponents of the new school have worn partisan T-shirts and buttons, dozens of letters to the editor have appeared in local newspapers, and debates have been marked by heckling.

The school board is expected to vote in favor of the idea April 15. Opponents say they may sue to attempt to block the vote.

As envisioned by the Malibu High School Study Committee and by Supt. Eugene Tucker, Malibu High would be an alternative college preparatory school open to Malibu and Santa Monica students.

Tucker recommends that the school open in 1992, on the Malibu Park Middle School campus, with about 85 freshmen. Upper grades would be phased in a year at a time, with a maximum enrollment of 900 students for grades 7 through 12.

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The 32-acre Malibu Park campus now has about 300 students and can accommodate about 1,000.

The school would have no entrance requirements other than students’ commitment to prepare for college. Nor would it lack the array of classes offered at Santa Monica High School. Initially, Advanced Placement and honors classes would not be available, but Malibu students could keep up by being tutored, studying independently or taking lessons via satellite, according to a report by Tucker.

The orchestra and other extracurricular programs would also be scaled to an appropriate size. There would be no football team and no business or industrial arts classes in the foreseeable future, Tucker said.

The large high school in Santa Monica and the smaller one in Malibu would each have advantages that would attract students from both communities, Malibu High supporters say.

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The proposal came out of Malibu parents’ concerns that Santa Monica High, nicknamed “Samohi,” is at least a one-hour bus ride from their homes and that too many Malibu children are leaving the district for private schools.

The Malibu High plan and its marketing have shifted over time. Last fall, a study committee report touted the “college prep magnet” and “its unique semi-rural setting between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains . . . sheltered from most urban problems and distractions.”

Now supporters stress “college prep” in the broad sense, not in the East Coast snob-school sense. They say the school would offer courses meeting the entrance requirements of the University of California system--courses that every high school in the state must offer.

According to the study committee, luring back private-school students would be a key advantage of a Malibu High. “We could attract at least 25% of (the Malibu students in private schools) back into the district for increased revenues of approximately $320,000,” last fall’s report said.

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That aspect is now downplayed. The superintendent’s report, issued in February, does not count possible recruitment of private-school students in enrollment projections. “We’re trying to serve the students in the district, not in private schools,” said school board President Patricia Hoffman, who favors creating a Malibu high school.

School board members say they are not wedded to the superintendent’s blueprint. They say, for instance, that they may want to tinker with the recruitment idea or set up some other magnet program.

Critics of the plan say it is not necessarily the long and accident-prone commute on Pacific Coast Highway that is driving children from the district. They cite the fact that many Malibu parents send their children to Crossroads, St. Monica’s and other private schools in Santa Monica.

They suspect that Malibu parents simply want “their own little public-private school up there,” as Santa Monica parent Jean Sedillos said.

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“It’s not about long bus rides or anything else other than an expression of white middle-class anxiety about gangs and graffiti that they’ve heard about in Santa Monica,” said Santa Monica parent Richard Maullin.

“I see it as separate but unequal, and I think the people behind it see it that way,” said critic Jerry Newport, who was cheered by the predominantly Santa Monica audience at a forum last week in Santa Monica.

Malibu residents insist that the proposal is needed to salvage the public school system in Malibu, which will otherwise “cease to exist in three to four years” because people will continue leaving to go to private schools, Jeffrey Jennings, chairman of the Malibu High School Study Committee, said at the debate. The situation now is “a sandpile that’s washing away under your feet,” he told the board.

Opponents argue that, “college prep” or not, the school will be perceived as an elite school and will drain all the college-bound students--and top-notch classes--from Samohi.

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Tucker and other supporters disagree, saying Samohi’s enrollment would not be allowed to drop below 2,200. The school’s current enrollment is 2,649, which includes about 300 students from Malibu.

Malibu students make up between 4% and 18% of certain advanced-placement, honors and upper-level courses at Samohi, Tucker’s report said. At most, he said, the number of sections would be pared, but the courses would not be eliminated.

Likewise, proponents dispute that there will be a brain drain of minority students. Samohi’s student body is about 48% minority, and Malibu Park’s is about 23% minority. To reach a 35% minority ratio at Malibu High, about 15 minority students would have to be recruited for each ninth-grade class. “Even if these were the very brightest, and that is very unlikely, the overall impact on Santa Monica High School should be minimal,” Tucker said in his report.

However, Latino parents, in particular, argue that the district should first tackle existing problems at Santa Monica High, such as bilingual education and the above-average dropout rate of minority students.

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The Latino Resource Organization is outraged that in response to its recommendations on the needs of Latino students, Tucker said that a study committee could be formed but that because of other demands on district staff, the committee would not begin its work before fall.

“The only way the district can prove to me (that the plan is) not racially motivated is by establishing a magnet school for high-risk students in Malibu,” said Arturo Olivas, executive director of LRO, the Westside’s only Latino social service agency.

“They’re talking out of both sides of their mouth,” Olivas said. “On the one hand, it’s a safety issue for Malibu residents to send their kids to Santa Monica High, but on the other hand, we can bus in Latinos for racial equality. They don’t give a damn about the safety of Latino kids on that highway.” The difference, supporters say, is that Latinos and other students from Santa Monica would be choosing to board the bus--and they’d be going against traffic. “The fact that the choice is available to them will be a difference. I’d like to get away from forcing anyone onto Pacific Coast Highway,” board President Hoffman said.

Besides a debate over busing, the issue is also a tug of war over limited money.

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Samohi is operating under capacity, the district is already strapped for money, and with Gov. Pete Wilson’s proposed cuts in education funding, this is no time to start a new school, opponents say.

“The bigger population, the bigger problem, is in Santa Monica,” Santa Monica parent Jonathan Gross told school board members attending the forum. “Create the greatest good for the greatest number, given your scarce resources.”

Costs for the school are projected to be $30,000 for the first year, which includes money for textbooks, curriculum development and a recruiter. After 1996, running the school will cost $92,800 a year, according to the district.

But backers say the new school will not siphon much from the district. The Malibu Park campus will need some remodeling--including converting a classroom into a science laboratory, upgrading the library and refurbishing the school office--but these projects can be paid for with money from a $75-million bond measure that voters approved last fall and from developer fees, Tucker said.

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Malibu parents vow to raise $50,000 a year for three years for start-up expenses, if necessary. The district says the city of Malibu has pledged to support the school as well.

According to a recent memo from Tucker to the board, Malibu residents are paying 28% of the $75-million bond, or about $21 million. Existing campuses in Malibu, which consist of the middle school and an elementary school, will get only about half that sum, with the rest--at least $10 million--going to Santa Monica schools.

Meanwhile, Malibu accounts for only 14% of the district’s students. “Malibu is part of the district, and they’re paying for it, too,” said board member Connie Jenkins, who supports the plan.

Some parents on both sides think the rift over Malibu High is so deep that secession is the only answer. Here finances, again, are at issue. If Malibu secedes, it would get all the district’s unused property in Malibu, worth more than $15 million, according to Tucker’s memo.

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Although board President Hoffman said in an interview that the board vote would be unanimously in favor of the school, others on the board said it’s not a done deal.

“It’s not black and white, it’s not yes or no,” board member Pam Brady said at the forum. She said she is still concerned about the racial balance at Malibu and the programs at both Samohi and Malibu High.

Opponents contend that the board should delay a decision at least until the Santa Monica High School Study Committee, which was formed last fall, completes its work. Among other topics, it is to examine the effects of a Malibu High.

But Malibu backers want to get on with it. “You make your best educated guess, and you let the program shape and develop over time. We know there’s need; we know what the projected dangers are,” Tucker said at the debate. “This is how lots of decisions are made in education. You don’t have all the information before you start.”

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Starting with 85 freshmen in 1992 is hardly rushing things, supporters say. “That gives us a great deal of time for fine-tuning,” Jenkins said at the forum.

“We’re damned if we do, we’re damned if we don’t,” she added. “The conflict is not going to go away.”


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