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Will the Santa Monica-Malibu schools divorce go forward? Yes, but ...

The Malibu High School football field scoreboard
Malibu is attempting to secede from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, a longtime effort that will move forward after a vote by county education officials.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Malibu got one step closer to its ultimate goal Saturday: a divorce from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and control over its students’ educational futures. But a resolution is probably years away.

After three and a half hours of often acrimonious testimony, the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization voted 8-2 to allow the city’s petition to leave the district to move forward. The vote was the latest development in a long process, and it was not a signal that Malibu’s controversial secession plan would eventually succeed, committee officials said.

“There is no endorsement of the proposal by [the committee’s] staff,” Allison Deegan, the committee’s regionalized business services coordinator, said Saturday. “There is only a recommendation to continue review, locate additional material that may be compelling and controlling and resolve the matter in line with the county committee’s typical, robust process.”

Malibu is 20 or so miles west of Santa Monica. The cities don’t share a boundary, but they’ve been joined by a single school system for nearly 70 years. For more than half of their relationship, Malibu has wanted out.

Malibu has been trying to secede for decades. Parents there say their children get short shrift from Santa Monica, which says losing Malibu would be financially devastating.

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City officials and Malibu parents argue that their children are receiving a degraded education compared with students in Santa Monica schools. They note that Santa Monica High offers five foreign languages, but Malibu High has only two; that Santa Monica students can attend a dual-immersion language program where they’re taught in English and Spanish, but Malibu students can’t.

“The needs of the Malibu students and community continue to go unmet,” Malibu Councilwoman Karen Farrer said during the hearing Saturday, “because the district is not interested in finding a remedy to this situation. That is why we have come to you to get this done.”

Malibu’s latest petition to secede from the school district began in 2015. Since then, the city and the district have negotiated, broken off negotiations and tried to sort out differences again. They have come before the county committee nearly a dozen times. The Saturday vote did not bring a resolution, but opens more rounds of hearing, meetings and reports.

Both sides agree that it would be best to split up, but district officials contend that Malibu’s current plan would create a majority white school system in Malibu while leaving the more diverse student population in Santa Monica in the financial lurch, facing larger class sizes, fewer programs for disadvantaged children and a frightening future.

Malibu students make up about 15% of the district population; Malibu property taxes make up about 35% of the district’s revenues. Malibu wants more of that money under its own control, calling it a matter of equity. District officials disagree and argue that the state’s school finance system doesn’t work that way.

“Sadly there is a continuing precedent of systemic and structural discrimination in this country that has even touched the educational system in the form of rich, wealthy, predominantly white communities peeling themselves away from bigger and more ethnically diverse districts,” SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati said during the Saturday hearing.

At the same time, such districts take “community resources assigned to public education in their region or district,” he said. “This is happening all over the nation and in our own backyard with the [Malibu] City Council’s petition.”

In early September, the county committee staff released its own critique of the Malibu plan. That analysis said the plan did not fulfill eight of nine criteria important to any decision about allowing districts to secede and would leave the remaining Santa Monica district in “dire” financial shape.

But the staff also recommended that the committee allow the process to move forward, because the information they have to date about the proposed split is more opinion than fact. Continuing the review process would allow the committee to obtain the information it needs.

The committee agreed.

But the Saturday decision is far from any final determination. The committee now has 60 days to hold at least one more hearing. After that it will have 120 days for analysis and another vote. The next step is a state environmental review, which could take up to two years.

“It’s then in the queue to be reviewed by the State Board of Education,” Deegan said. “Their current queue to hear a petition is three years.”

Then, if the state board approves the petition, the decision on whether Malibu can split off and form its own school district will go to a public vote.

“The voting area is not yet determined,” said Farrer, who did not comment further on the Saturday decision.

There are two possibilities, said David Soldani, an attorney representing the school district in the current proceedings. The first would be a vote of just Malibu residents, the second, a vote of residents in the entire district. “There is not a nice and tidy way to encapsulate the factors that go into the mix,” he said.

Jon Kean, president of the school board, said the Saturday decision was “fairly easy to predict.”

“The county committee reinforced that 8 of 9 criteria remain unmet,” he said in an email. “The decision to go to the full public process will not change that, but it will give the City of Malibu two more months to present facts and evidence that they have failed to produce in the past six years.”

The city has not produced such evidence to date, Kean said, “because the petition is fatally flawed. At the end of the process the inequities of this petition will be clear and the city will not be able to say it was denied a fair hearing.”

Christine Wood, Malibu’s deputy city attorney, said in an email that the city “is pleased with the County Committee decision today. We look forward to an opportunity to advance our Petition into the regular process knowing that we will be able to substantially meet all nine of the criteria.”

She said city officials also hope the school district will return to the negotiating table and, with the help of third-party arbitration, hash out a plan to split up that both sides can agree on.


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