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School Board Member's Accusations 'Inflammatory and Unfair'

November 5, 2020

Dear Editor,

A letter written by Craig Foster, one of our SMMUSD School Board colleagues, was published this week in various local outlets ("OPINION -- School Superintendent's Letter 'Wildly Hypocritical,'" November 3, 2020).

It leveled some very harsh, inflammatory and unfair accusations at Superintendent Ben Drati concerning recent developments about “unification” (separation of Santa Monica and Malibu schools into two separate and distinct districts).

In this day and age, it is increasingly critical to our discourse that we acknowledge over and over again that everyone is entitled to an opinion, but not to their own version of the facts. As board members, we feel compelled to set the record straight by addressing the factual inaccuracies and baseless assertions raised in the letter.

First, Dr. Drati serves as the superintendent for all 9,700 students in SMMUSD, not just the students who live in Santa Monica. To imply anything else perpetuates a fallacy that is dragged out every so often by Malibu residents who support separation from SMMUSD and actively seek examples of their perceived mistreatment by the district to justify that action.

In fact, over the past few years, significant progress has been made to enhance Malibu schools’ local control over fundraising, construction, and curricular choices. Dr. Drati has been a leader in helping SMMUSD achieve these very interests.

The unification proposal submitted unilaterally by the Malibu City Council ignores two years of discussions and negotiations that have been grounded in an abiding belief in the possibility of an equitable separation of our two communities to form two school districts. As the guardian of all students in the school district, Dr. Drati had no choice but to respond as he did in his letter.

The Malibu City Council’s petition not only seeks to severely reduce student opportunity in Santa Monica where 87% of the students in the district attend school, but it also ignores the manner in which schools have been funded in California for more than 40 years.

Some important facts to know about the process to date:

1. The negotiating teams were very close to an agreement which would have accomplished equity for all students when the Malibu team stopped communicating and ultimately made a decision to re-file its petition with the County without observing the common courtesy of sharing their intentions with our superintendent (or any of us).

2. There have been attempts to deliberately draw attention away from the stunning inequity in Malibu’s proposal by pointing to how well-off SMMUSD is compared with other districts, as if that somehow justifies the harm that would come to the larger and more diverse part of the district that is in Santa Monica. This misdirection is intended to take the focus off of the real issue at the heart of this controversy; namely, equity. Let’s be clear: Malibu’s proposal would leave the students of Santa Monica worse off than they would have been if we remained SMMUSD while simultaneously creating a small, 1,250-student, largely white, highly affluent school district in Malibu.

3. After the City of Santa Monica and its voters have repeatedly voted to tax themselves to provide additional funding for ALL students for years –- those in Santa Monica and Malibu -– Foster has the audacity to imply that the property taxes that are paid by Malibu residents should all go solely to support only the dwindling numbers of students in Malibu schools, a position grounded in a completely inaccurate understanding of the way school funding works in California.

4. Any attempt to blame the declining enrollment in Malibu’s schools on SMMUSD is absurd and dishonest as are mischaracterizations of the PCB and the Woolsey fire responses. Furthermore, accusations about cutting teachers and programs in Malibu belie reality. In truth, SMMUSD spends more per student in Malibu than in Santa Monica, the student to teacher ratio in Malibu schools is lower than in Santa Monica, and we continue to support measures that help Malibu schools stay vibrant despite their small numbers. Malibu’s schools are highly ranked by every publication that indulges in the ranking of California’s public schools, and with good reason.

5. To talk about the “price of Malibu’s freedom” and attempt to draw bizarre parallels between Malibu’s desire to separate and actual freedom movements is sadly in keeping with the dangerous direction of our country in which seeking the common good is no longer a shared value. It is increasingly being replaced by greed and selfishness and the “I’ve got mine” mentality exhibited by the Malibu City Council.

Make no mistake, Dr. Drati is, and has always been, fiercely committed to providing opportunities for all students in SMMUSD. His responsibility does not change once he drives north on PCH and Foster well knows that. Dr. Drati’s commitment to equity is one of the reasons he enjoys the support of all Board members.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District must always make decisions based on the best interests of its students in Santa Monica AND Malibu. Dr. Drati is the Superintendent of students in both of our communities. To attack him as being biased in favor of Santa Monica is not merely false, but it is unacceptable coming from someone who has spent six years serving both communities and who knows better.

To reiterate, we believe there is a pathway for the creation of two independent school districts, but that pathway is inseparably connected to the principle of equity. We remain committed to continuing down the same path of negotiating an equitable separation that we embarked upon arm-in-arm with the City should the City wish to do so.


Jon Kean, President
Laurie Lieberman, Vice President
Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, Board Member
SMMUSD Board of Education

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