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School Board Approves Gift Policy, Malibu Separation Process

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

September 14 -- After nearly a year of heated debate, the School Board last week voted to approve a controversial gift policy that places a portion of donations to all district schools into an "Equity Fund" to help needier schools.

The board also pledged its near-unanimous support for the Malibu secession process initiated by parents disgruntled over their lack of a say in the debate over the gift policy, which they warn will discourage giving, violates PTA bylaws and is likely illegal.

Four of the six members present at Thursday’s meeting supported the gift policy proposed by Superintendent John Deasy, which supporters have called a "bold and courageous" step towards fairness. (Oscar de la Torre, a strong supporter of the policy was absent.)

"The bottom line for me is that we have to be able to provide at least the basic needs for all of our students to get ahead,” said Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez, who added that she grew up in a working-class family and saw the need for universal high-quality education. “For me, education was the equalizer."

Beginning immediately, 15 percent of gifts given to individual district schools will be placed in the Equity Fund. The board will review the fund's progress and effectiveness yearly.

Thursday’s vote however, was not unanimous, with two board members opposing the policy. One of the dissenters was Mike Jordan, the only board member from Malibu, where the gift policy has been overwhelmingly unpopular.

Jordan, like the Malibu parents who spoke during the more than nine months of public debate, said he would have supported a voluntary Equity Fund but disagreed with a mandated policy some parents have called a "tax."

"The proper course, I believe, would have been the quick establishment of a voluntary equity fund,” Jordan said “I believe it would have served as a catalyst for unity in our great district and rallied all of us around a cause we deeply believe in.

"I believe we would have already had hundreds of thousands of dollars in this fund, perhaps more, and would not have alienated those in Malibu and Santa Monica who opposed the mandatory process," he said.

The other dissenting board member was Shane McLoud, a Santa Monica resident. McLoud was the only member who joined Jordan in voting against the policy during a preliminary vote in February, when he said it was "inappropriate to alter someone's generosity" and predicted there would be legal challenges to a mandatory fund.

Deasy's "divisive" gift policy, as Jordan called it, set off a debate between Malibu parents and the mostly-Santa Monica-based district administration that could be the catalyst for Malibu secession from the district.

When months of highly charged public hearings about the policy led to preliminary board approval in February, Malibu parents began an initiative to split from the district. The debate, they said, had highlighted the minimal control they held over their children's education when decisions were being made in district offices two cities away in Santa Monica.

"The gift policy itself is not a pivotal issue," said Tom Sorce, president of the parent group that is leading the break-up initiative, in an interview in August. "It's the realization that people are not empowered to have a voice at the local level."

Jordan said Thursday that Deasy's leadership on issues of equity had been "exemplary" in general, but the district's insistence upon creating a mandatory Equity Fund without trying a voluntary setup first had caused rifts.

"Ironically, in my view, because we did not first try a voluntary fund, it is entirely possible that in a couple of years there will be no fund -- voluntary, mandatory or otherwise -- from Malibu," Jordan said.

"Our district is on the verge of a very difficult divorce process, in my view, and the groundswell of new support in Malibu for the creation of a Malibu Unified School District is a direct result of the way that we proceeded around this issue,” Jordan said. “It didn't have to be so."

On Thursday, the board voted 5 to 1 to support the process needed for Malibu to split from the district, on condition that the parents’ group leading the separation attempt collects the signatures of 25 percent of Malibu's electorate.

The board had indicated a willingness to support the process at their last meeting, at Deasy's recommendation, and Thursday's vote formalized that support.

The vote, however, was not an endorsement for splitting the district; but strictly a pledge of support for the process of sending an application to County and State bodies for review.

The lone dissenter was Maria Leon-Vazquez, who gave the same justification for opposing the separation process as she did for supporting the Equity Fund -- that the board's duty was to serve every student in Malibu and Santa Monica.

"If members from the City of Malibu feel that we as a board did not follow what our mandate was, to represent all children, so be it,” Leon-Vazquez said. “All I can say is I'm here in terms of representing all children in both cities.

"I figure if they [Malibu parents] want to move forward with the petition process, that's fine, but I'm not ready to sign on," she said.

Leon-Vazquez also made statements that suggested she was unconvinced by Malibu parents' repeated statements at the last board meeting that their desire to separate stemmed not from the gift policy itself but from the larger issue of local control over Malibu students' education.

"It's unfortunate that because of circumstances regarding a gift policy, which is supposed to be for the benefit of all children in both cities, that we have to go to this extreme," Leon-Vazquez said Thursday.

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