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Divorce Talks Between Malibu and Santa Monica Public Schools Grow More Acrimonious


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

November 13, 2017 -- As divorces go, the split sought by the community of Malibu from the Santa Monica-Malibu public school system took its first serious steps almost two years ago with a certain amount of equanimity and even good will.

With the divorce rejected by the school board on October 30, Malibu separatists now vow to go the board meeting Thursday to demand the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District act on the separation agreement recommended by negotiators.

The board is looking at different options -- and Malibu parents are feeling angrier, and more poorly treated, than ever ("Malibu Split from Santa Monica Schools in Jeopardy," November 2, 2017).

“It is acting in bad faith,” said Kevin Shenkman, a prominent Malibu attorney who originally sat on the six-member committee tasked with ironing out a separation agreement.

“They agreed in principle," he said. They set up a committee that met 49 times. Now they’re saying, ‘We were just kidding?’ It’s ridiculous.”

Shenkman, who is suing the City of Santa Monica in a case of alleged violations of the California Voting Rights Act, left the committee over a potential conflict of interest ("Key Negotiator in Talks for Malibu Schools Separation from SMMUSD Resigns," April 19, 2016).

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But his sentiments about the school board -- only one member is from Malibu -- seems widely shared in the community, and is heard in Santa Monica as well.

“Your job now should be to cut bait and spend your time and energy more productively,” one long-time volunteer with the district, who is from Santa Monica, wrote in a letter to School Superintendent Ben Drati and the school board ("LETTERS: Set Malibu Schools Free, Santa Monica Education Activist Says," November 8, 2017).

In her letter, Ann Hoover asked why the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) would want “a now-forced marriage when one partner so clearly is no longer committed?

“NOW IS THE TIME FOR AN INDEPENDENT MALIBU SCHOOL DISTRICT,” a November 1 message on the Facebook page for Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS) told its supporters.

At Thursday's meeting, Drati is scheduled to update the board on follow-up discussions with Malibu officials, ordered by the board, and whether a compromise can be brokered ("OPINION: Remaining Santa Monica School District Will Suffer in a Malibu Separation, Superintendent Says," November 7, 2017).

If not, the board might start molding a position on a pro-separation petition submitted by Malibu officials to the Los Angeles County Office of Education in September.

The petition is meant to side step the school board.

The Office of Education has authority to act in the matter, although doing so without the blessing of SMMUSD is problematic, officials say.

Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS) says the county office will hold two public hearings, one in December and the other in January to collect input.

In the meantime, the Malibu parents and others from the community will be welcomed at Thursday’s meeting, as they are “always welcome to attend our school board meetings and share their concerns through the public comment portion of our meetings,” said SMMUSD spokesperson Gail Pinsker.

“We had 45 public comments at the recent special meeting to discuss Malibu separation, of which there were comments for and against separation,” Pinsker said.

The public also can send emails or mail to school board members or district leadership, or through the Let's Talk system online, she said.

Thursday’s meeting starts at 6:30 p.m., although the first hour is reserved for closed-door executive session. The public portion begins at 7;30 p.m. and is at district headquarters, 1651 16th Street in Santa Monica.

About 17 percent of SMMUSD’s estimated 11,000 students live in Malibu. A high school/middle school and three elementary schools are in the city; the rest of the district’s 16 schools are in Santa Monica.

Supporters of the split argue that Malibu students are shortchanged in educational terms, and others have waged a long battle with the district over toxins on campus.

After decades of talk about a separate Malibu district, the board agreed in principal to the split in 2015 ("Santa Monica School Board Members Support Malibu Split, Questions Remain," December 2, 2015).

The subsequent Malibu Unification Negotiations Committee, which is composed of three members each representing Malibu and SMMUSD, met almost 50 times before recommending the terms of the separation earlier this year.

But Malibu separatists were blindsided at the last board member when most members balked at approving the committee's final recommendations.

A consultant’s report said the split would cause a funding gap for a Santa Monica-only school district of $610 per Santa Monica student in 2024-25, more than doubling (for a total gap of $10.1 million) and grow to $10.1 million by 2029-30.

It addressed closing the gap via transfers from the new Malibu district to Santa Monica schools. But another report said the MUNC formula fell short of closing the gap.

Board members walked back their support for separation, and instead ordered Drati to look at other options, including allowing Malibu autonomy without splitting into a different district.

Protests erupted from the audience that night and Craig Foster, the only member from Malibu, grew so upset by the sentiments of his colleagues he walked out. Foster later returned.


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