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Proponents Prepare to Submit Plan to Divide School District Into 7 Trustee Areas

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By Jorge Casuso

November 18, 2021 -- A petition to divide the local School District into seven trustee areas will be submitted to County officials next week, according to Kevin Shenkman, the attorney for the plan's proponents.

If the petition -- which requires 500 valid signatures from registered voters in Santa Monica and Malibu -- qualifies, it will go to the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization, Shenkman said.

Under a new State law, the Committee -- which is currently considering Malibu's petition to separate from the District -- is empowered to establish trustee districts for SMMUSD’s elections.

"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.

"By establishing trustee-area elections for SMMUSD," the petition reads, the Committee "can ensure that all groups have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, and all groups are fairly represented in the governance of SMMUSD."

The School District said it could not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

"SMMUSD school board members and District leadership were in a school board meeting when asked for comment," officials said in a statement Thursday night. "The District spokeswoman stated the District will provide a statement in the coming days."

Unlike Malibu's petition to split from the District -- which would take years if the Committee approves it -- the new plan could be in place in a matter of months, Shenkman said.

If the signatures are approved, the Committee would hold two public meetings before voting on whether to approve the petition, he said.

Those meetings need to take place after January 1, when Senate Bill 442 goes into effect, empowering the committee to divide the District.

The bill swept through the Senate and Assembly with unanimous votes, including those of State Senator Ben Allen and Assemblymember Richard Bloom, who represent Santa Monica.

Approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom on July 23, the bill 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.

According to the Counsel's Digest, it also requires the resolution "to govern all elections for governing board members occurring at least 125 days after the adoption of the resolution."

Shenkman believes the petition could be approved by February or March, far in advance of the November elections.

"Let's not wait," Shenkman told the Lookout. "People want representation now."

If approved, the plan would likely create two northern districts equally divided between Santa Monica and Malibu, Shenkman said. Five of the current Board members live in those two Districts.

Four of the districts would elect a trustee in 2022 and three in 2024.

According to the petition, recent campaigns under the District's at-large elections have spent more than $100,000, "further disadvantaging candidates from the less-wealthy neighborhoods of Santa Monica."

Shenkman -- who represents the Latino plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit against the City -- said petition gatherers have been collecting signatures in both Malibu and Santa Monica.

"The School District tries to say it's really Malibu doing this," Shenkman said, "but there are plenty of people in Santa Monica who are unhappy" with the current system.

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