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Stalled Malibu Secession Effort to Resume

By Susan Reines

September 30 -- A Malibu parent group's petition to secede from the School District -- which has been stalled for a month as County officials revise the voided document bearing hundreds of signatures -- could begin recirculating at Malibu back-to-school-nights scheduled for this week.

The petition, which was drafted by Dr. Tom Griffin, a former State Board of Education member hired by the parent group Malibu Unified School Team (MUST), was held up due to its language.

"I used language that had been used in a number of other school districts across the state," Griffin said. "But I guess each county makes up its own mind."

The group, which began circulating the petition last month, had assumed it would be accepted by the County because it had already met State standards, said MUST President Tom Sorce. But when the group sent the petition to the County to double-check its validity, the response was that it needed to be re-worded.

When it recalled the petition last month, the County said the language revisions would take a week, Sorce said. But the revisions took longer than anticipated, and the document was returned with an incorrect map of the proposed district, forcing MUST to submit it for yet another revision.

The map the county included with its first revision incorrectly included parts of Santa Monica and other areas that would not be part of the new district, Sorce said.

Sorce, however, seemed unruffled by the delay, noting there is no deadline to collect the 3,000 signatures -- 25 percent of voters in the proposed district -- needed to submit the petition for county review.

"We have kind of a self-imposed timeline and we were hoping to get this done by the November election, but that's just self-imposed," he said. "The clock starts ticking once we get the signatures."

Support for the district split appears to be strong in Malibu. "Most people were signing" when the original petition was circulating in Malibu, Sorce said, adding that the group collected hundreds of signatures in a few weeks.

Santa Monicans do not have the option of signing the petition because only those who would live in the Malibu district will be allowed to vote on its formation.

MUST's ranks have tripled from the original 15 parents who founded the group since it opened for general membership about a week and a half ago.

All but one Scholl Board member, Maria Leon-Vazquez, pledged earlier this month to sign on once the voter signatures are collected, though board member signatures are not required if enough voters sign.

MUST formed after parents clashed with Superintendent John Deasy last winter over his proposal to place 15 percent of donations to individual schools into an "equity fund" to be distributed throughout the district. But members have said since the group became public last summer that the policy - which the board adopted this month -- only stoked parents' concerns that their voices were not being heard.

"The way the debate was handled by John Deasy -- not the policy itself, but the way it was handled -- energized a group of people," Sorce said in an interview in July. "The gift policy itself is not a pivotal issue. It's the realization that people are not empowered to have a voice at the local level."

Deasy said at two recent school board meetings that he will not stand in the way of MUST's initiative, calling the proposed separation a voter issue.

Sorce, who met with Deasy along with other MUST members, said he believed Deasy's statements were genuine. "I believe that he'll keep his word and he'll let this go to the voters," Sorce said.|

Voters will have final say if the state approves the redistricting. The State will take up the petition after the County's review, but can grant approval even if the County recommends against it.

This is not the first time Malibu tries to split from the district. An similar efort in 1980 was denied, apparently because Malibu did not yet have its own high school.

Since then, there has been talk in Malibu about a separation, especially after Malibu High was built, but another organized initiative had not arisen until now.

Griffin, MUST's consultant, conducted a feasibility study this year that concluded Malibu meets the nine State criteria for having its own district, including being able to support itself financially without extra help from the state. The County and State will conduct their own reviews to determine whether Malibu measures up to the criteria if the petition is submitted.

One criterium is that the split not adversely affect Santa Monica, financially or otherwise. It appears a Malibu secession could potentially impact Santa Monica schools negatively because Malibu has a higher per-capita income and generally scored better on standardized tests given last spring.

On the other hand, Santa Monica schools would be able to keep all of the $6 million the district recently negotiated to receive each year from the Santa Monica City Council.

Larry Shirey of the California Department of Education said minor impacts would not likely make or break the redistricting. The State would "look at whether the district (Santa Monica) is able to meet financial obligations," he said.

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