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Key Negotiator in Talks for Malibu Schools Separation from SMMUSD Resigns
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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

April 19, 2016 -- A negotiator in Malibu’s fight to break from the Santa Monica-Malibu School District resigned Monday from his seat on the panel overseeing the split, saying he is suffering retaliation for filing a Voting Rights Act lawsuit that could impact both the City of Santa Monica and its public school district.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman said he is leaving the Malibu Unification Negotiation Committee to avoid any potential conflict involving the litigation he and others filed April 11 against the City of Santa Monica.

The suit contends that the “at-large” method of holding City Council elections violates the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Latinos. It also seeks “declaratory relief” from a City Charter law that requires the same election method be used for board members of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD).("Santa Monica Facing Lawsuit Over At-Large Council Elections," April 13, 2016).

In a related development, a Malibu organization of school activists which originally joined in Shenkman’s lawsuit decided to withdraw, he said.

Shenkman said he discussed the move with members of Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS) and both agreed to the decision to drop out of the litigation.

“It’s part of our overall strategy of trying to keep the two issues from conflating, conflicting with each other for attention,” Shenkman said.

His decision to bow out of the Malibu Unification Negotiation Committee was made, though, with “trepidation,” he said in a letter of resignation sent to the Lookout on Monday.

The six-member committee was established in January and is evenly divided between advocates for a separate Malibu district (including Shenkman) and the SMMUSD.

“For several years, I have worked tirelessly on two causes about which I care deeply: 1) voting rights; and 2) local control for Malibu schools," Shenkman wrote.

"Now, due to retaliation for my pursuit of voting rights for the Latino community of Santa Monica, I am forced to step away from my role in pursuit of a separate Malibu school district.”

The litigation quickly disrupted negotiations by the committee, which is represented by three advocates (including Shenkman) of a new district for Malibu and three representing the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD).

Just hours before another round of talks was scheduled for April 14, the three members representing SMMUSD interests said they were caught by surprise by the litigation and would not attend the next scheduled meeting.

But Shenkman contended in his resignation letter that the meeting was canceled due to political pressure.

He said an email from Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie Monday indicates that the City is well aware of the negotiations and delayed responding to his lawsuit, at least in part, for that reason.

Moutrie’s email said Shenkman’s “personal participation as a negotiator in the ongoing effort by yourself and other Malibu residents to create a separate school district for that city fostered the (apparently erroneous) impression that Santa Monica would have time to acquire the information necessary to properly evaluate your demand because your focus was on the School District and not the City Council.”

Shenkman said he was the toughest negotiator on the committee of those representing Malibu, and that the other side “wanted me gone” for that reason. “In a way, they got what they wanted.”

In his exit letter, Shenkman said the City was unable “to defend its election system in a court of law” so it instead “sought to retaliate against me in an unrelated matter – the Santa Monica negotiators on the Malibu Unification Negotiation Committee were instructed to walk away from the important work of that Committee in response to our lawsuit.”

Thomas Larmore, a committee member representing the SMMUSD, called the accusation “outrageous” and said that there were no outsiders attempting to influence the committee’s negotiations.

"The accusation in your letter that the three of us acted at the direction of the City in order to retaliate against you for having sued the City is a complete and outrageous fabrication," Larmore wrote in a letter to Shenkman Monday.

"We had no communication with anyone at the City about the lawsuit and you had no basis to contend otherwise. Maybe it doesn't occur to you, but you are not the center of everyone's thought process.

"The sole reason we took that action was spelled out in our letter of April 14, 2016 to the Board. I suggest you stop making these ludicrous statements because they undoubtedly reflect poorly on you by evidencing your obvious lack of good judgment," Larmore wrote.

In the April 14 letter to the school district, the Santa Monica representatives on the unification committee said the lawsuit, and Shenkman's and AMPS' involvement in the legal action, caught them by surprise and threatened to undermine “the collaborative nature of our discussions.”

“In the spirit of collaboration, we should have been informed that this action was forthcoming," he wrote. "We are concerned that the inclusion of issues related to the district and the participation of AMPS have no purpose other than to attempt to influence our negotiations.

“We view this as a serious matter and believe that no further meetings should be held until we have an opportunity to report to the board to receive direction from them.”

Discussed off and on for years, proposals to split Malibu from the SMMUSD took a big step forward in December after members of the School Board publicly supported the move.

The Unification Negotiation Committee is the result. Many of its talks so far have focused on the cost of separation for the district.

In the Voting Rights litigation, Shenkman is representing residents of Santa Monica's largely Latino Pico Neighborhood. The lawsuit seeks to replace the City's at-large elections for City Council with district elections.

The Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA) and Maria Loya, a Latina activist and Pico Neighborhood resident are the remaining plaintiffs.

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