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City, SMMUSD Sue County Committee to Stop School Districting Plan

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By Jorge Casuso

March 21, 2022 -- The City of Santa Monica and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) filed a lawsuit on Friday seeking to stop an effort to divide the District into trustee areas.

Filed in Superior Court against the LA County Committee on School District Organization, the lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of a new State law that allows the committee to create districts without voter approval.

The lawsuit could delay, and perhaps halt, the Committee's review of a petition submitted by Santa Monica and Malibu voters that would replace at-large elections with seven districts, possibly in time for the November 8 election.

It argues the new State law violates the California Constitution’s guarantee that charter cities like Santa Monica can dictate “the manner in which, the times at which, and the terms for which the members of boards of education shall be elected or appointed.”

The lawsuit -- filed by Interim City Attorney Joe Lawrence and the law firm of Strumwasser & Woocher LLP hired by the District -- seeks to prohibit the County Committee from implementing the State law.

“This case is not about whether SMMUSD Board members should continue to be elected at large or by trustee-area districts," School Board President Maria Leon-Vazquez said in a statement Monday. "It is about who should be entitled to make that decision."

City and District officials, Leon-Vazquez said, believe local voters should decide, "not a committee composed of unelected representatives with little or no ties to either Santa Monica or Malibu.”

Kevin Shenkman, an attorney who represents the plan's proponents, said the plaintiffs should be suing the State of California, not the County Committee.

The Committee "is duty bound to implement a State law," Shenkman said. "It's not the Committee's role to decide if something is or isn't constitutional."

The lawsuit, Shenkman added, "is an incredibly expensive waste of money."

SB 442 -- which went into effect January 1 -- 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.

Proponents of the plan -- who successfully gathered more than the necessary 500 valid signatures of District voters -- argue that the School Board has long had a disproportionate number of members from the wealthy north side of Santa Monica.

Opponents counter 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 and that two Pico Neighborhood residents served a combined 32 years on the Board.

The lawsuit was filed one day after the School Board voted 6-0 in closed session to move forward with the legal challenge. On February 8, the City Council voted 5-2 to support the District, "if necessary, through litigation."

“For a charter city such as Santa Monica, this law violates our sovereignty under the California Constitution and overreaches into our municipal affairs,” Mayor Sue Himmelrich said in a statement Monday.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctions prohibiting the County Committee from implementing the State law. The plaintiffs are seeking a swift ruling.

"Petitioners are informed and believe, and on that basis allege, that absent this Court’s intervention" the County Committee " intends to complete the hearing process and render a decision by the end of April 2022."

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