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Proponents of Dividing School District into Trustee Areas Submit Plan

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By Jorge Casuso

December 2, 2021 -- Proponents of dividing the School District into trustee areas submitted their plan to County Education officials last week, according to a representative for the group.

Their attorney, Kevin Shenkman, said the proponents -- who needed to gather at least 500 valid signatures of Santa Monica and Malibu voters -- submitted a petition with 815 signatures last Tuesday.

They plan to submit more signature next week "to pad the numbers a little bit," Shenkman said.

If the petition qualifies, it will go to the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization, which is currently considering Malibu's petition to separate from the District.

But unlike Malibu's bid to separate -- which could take years to go into effect if it is approved -- the petition to create seven trustee districts could be in place by next year's general election in November, Shenkman said.

While the the State law -- AB442 -- that paves the way for the petition doesn't go into effect until January 1, "that doesn't mean you can't file the petition (before that date)," Shenkman said.

"We want action," he said. "I don't want to risk any delays that would impact the 2020 elections."

Opponents of dividing the district into trustee areas had no immediate comment, saying the Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) will take up the proposed plan at its meeting Monday.

The group is then expected then present the reasons it believes the plan is open to legal challenge, a representative said.

The new law authorizes the County Committee "to approve a proposal to establish trustee areas and elect governing board members using district-based elections without submitting the resolution to the electors of the district for approval," according to the Legislative Counsel's Digest.

"The bill would require such a resolution to include a declaration that the change in the method of electing members of the governing board is being made in furtherance of the purposes of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001."

Proponents of the measure argue that the School Board has long had a disproportionate number of members from the north side of the City.

"Currently, five of seven SMMUSD trustees reside in just one corner of Santa Monica -- the wealthiest neighborhood," the petition reads.

"Historically too, that area has been over-represented on the SMMUSD Board of Trustees, while other neighborhoods, such as the Latino- and African American-concentrated Pico Neighborhood, Mid-City and Malibu have enjoyed almost no representation at all."

Opponents are expected to argue that under the District's at-large elections, a Malibu resident has served on the seven-member School Board for all but six years since 1981.

They also note that Pico Neighborhood residents Peggy Lyons and Oscar de la Torre served a combined 32 years on the Board and that three Hispanics served at the same time in the early 2000s.

Shenkman argues that the District has a "representation problem" and that the proposed plan ensures that "every area of the District has representation.

"Right now," he said, "they don't."

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