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Santa Monica Council Places Conditions on Backing Malibu Split

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By Jorge Casuso

March 25, 2021 -- The Santa Monica City Council unanimously voted on Tuesday to only support Malibu's separation from the School District if the division of revenues are "fair and just" for Santa Monica students.

The vote comes less than one month before Los Angeles County education officials hold the first public hearing on Malibu's petition to break off from the unified district, an effort that gained momentum 15 years ago.

“The Santa Monica City Council will continue to advocate for what is just and what serves the common good of Santa Monica and Malibu students and families alike,” Mayor Sue Himmelrich said in a statement after the meeting.

“Slashing diversity and per pupil funding for Santa Monica students alone is inappropriate and will damage academic and social equity across all of the students and families served by SMMUSD,” Himmelrich said.

There was no discussion of the item before the anticipated vote, with only Councilmember Gleam Davis briefly weighing in on the importance of placing conditions on the Council's support to ensure Santa Monica doesn't lose out.

"I think it's imperative given the threat the Malibu Plan presents to the students and families of Santa Monica," said Davis, who received the backing of Santa Monica's education community in her November Council bid.

"We owe them that and we need to be willing and able to bring resources to that," Davis said.

The Council's position was fleshed out in a letter sent to the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization, which will hold next month's pubic hearing, on March 10.

The Malibu Petition, wrote wrote Himmelrich and Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan, would jeopardize "the wellbeing of all SMMUSD students by reducing per pupil expenditures for Santa Monica students for the next quarter century while creating a far better funded and significantly less diverse Malibu USD."

The letter reiterates data District officials have used to explain their opposition to a split that would result in Santa Monica receiving half of what Malibu students would receive within five years ("Malibu Split Headed for April Showdown," March 22, 2021).

Concerns about the impact of Malibu's split from the School District -- which has the odd official name of “unification” -- have been brewing for years.

They were raised in November 2015, when the five Santa Monica residents on the School Board at the time voted to support the separation only if it didn't harm education in either city ("Santa Monica School Board Members Support Malibu Split, Questions Remain," December 2, 2015).

At the meeting, the District’s Financial Oversight Committee (FOC) told the Board that separation would have a positive financial impact for Malibu, but for Santa Monica it would have a “material negative impact.”

That concerned the Santa Monica Board members. Board member Jose Escarce said some of the statements he heard from separation advocates appeared to be more hopeful than factual that the finances would work out.

“To just hope it will be OK when there are 9,000 children left in Santa Monica who will be experiencing the consequences of my decision for a long time, I can’t take that,” he said. “That’s irresponsible and reckless.”

Malibu's efforts to separate from the District picked up steam in 2004 when the School District revised its gift policy to to require that 15 percent of private donations be contributed to a districtwide fund restricting parents from donating to specific schools ("Malibu Starts Ball Rolling on Secession," November 29, 2011).

In September 2015, the Malibu City Council passed a resolution favoring separation and two months later, Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS) announced it had collected signatures of support from more than 25 percent of voters in Malibu and the surrounding area.

That paved the way for a petition can go forward to the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) to set up the process toward a possible ballot measure on district separation.

The petition was filed in September 2017 after more than a year of talks and about 40 negotiating sessions between officials from both cities ("City of Malibu Files for 'Divorce' from Santa Monica-Malibu School District," October 3, 2017).

The talks, however, continued until last October, when the Malibu City Council accused the District of "negotiating in bad faith" and re-petitioned County officials to intervene ("Malibu District Split Hits Major Roadblock," October 29, 2020).

The following month, the Santa Monica City Council unanimously voted to jump into the battle and express its concerns concerns over the loss of both funding and student diversity in a latter to County officials.

Santa Monica and Malibu officials disagree not only about the split, but about how long the district has been around.

Santa Monica officials contend the district was first organized in 1875 and included students from Malibu.

Malibu officials counter that it’s not clear Malibu "had anything to do with Santa Monica schools up until 1953," according to an article last month in the Malibu Times.

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