MALIBU—The board members of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District met this week and rejected a proposal to separate the Santa Monica district and Malibu school district into two separate entities.

After years of debate, the argument for splitting the district in two continues. Malibu parents and faculty wanted to leave the unified district, arguing that their district would get a financial boost from not having to spread its wealth with Santa Monica schools and to gain local control of their own schools.

The argument for financial gain was reportedly used in defense of keeping the school district whole. An independent consultant was brought forward to compare different separation plans. Each plan elaborated upon ended in similar results; based on the data, there was no way the Santa Monica schools would benefit from the separation. While funding for Malibu schools would skyrocket, funding for Santa Monica schools would fall. As a result, school board leaders gave the Malibu separation supporters a final choice: continue giving funding to Santa Monica schools for 50 years and divide the districts, or remain part of the unified district indefinitely.

Dr. Ben Drati, Superintendent for the SMMUSD indicated in a letter to parents, staff and community members on November 7:

“Two financial analyses have been completed and presented to the School Board, District leadership, interested parents and community members, including information provided at the most recent special Board meeting held on Oct. 30, 2017. School Services of California (SSC) presented its report at this meeting and the Malibu Unification Negotiations Committee (MUNC) presented twice earlier this year.

If SMMUSD were to split into two districts, there would be a negative fiscal impact on the remaining Santa Monica portion of the district.  The two reports (MUNC and SSC) posit approaches to address the negative fiscal impact on the remaining Santa Monica Unified School District (SMUSD) if separation were to occur.  Neither the MUNC nor the SSC approach eliminates the fiscal impact though both reports offer ways to diminish the impact.   While the formulas are different, both the MUNC and SSC proposals suggest a transition period immediately following separation into two districts during which revenues would remain substantially close to what they would have been in the current district and reductions in current operations would not likely be required. However, once the transition period ends, the Santa Monica-only district would no longer have the revenues it would have had if SMMUSD remained as a district.  Diminished revenues result in diminished purchasing power, which will have consequences for new and enhanced programs that the current district is contemplating and for the District’s ability to pay increasing expenses and meet rising financial obligations. At the same time, once the transition period ends, the Malibu-only portion of the district will have substantially greater revenues per student.”

Dr. Drati indicated in the letter that Board members expressed concern that the fiscal impact could be detrimental to Santa Monica. Consistent with those concerns, the Board directed staff to explore two potential directions (Plan A and Plan B). To carry out the Board’s exploration of these conceptual plans, the following will occur:

Plan A: I will meet with representatives from the Malibu City Council and also with the Malibu Schools Leadership Council (MSLC) and Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS) to determine whether Malibu stakeholders would be interested in having conversations with SMMUSD leadership about structural or governance solutions to Malibu’s desire to have greater local control over the schools in Malibu within the current SMMUSD.  This plan reflects a belief expressed by Board members that there is a great deal of room within our district to explore options that would enable greater local control for Malibu schools while maximizing the many assets we retain together as SMMUSD.

Plan B: Concurrently, District staff will communicate with SSC the Board’s request for further information regarding their proposed revenue-sharing formula, including extending the timeline to a period of 50 years. If agreed to and implemented, this would provide a pathway to creation of an independent school district in Malibu coupled with a long-term fiscal agreement that effectively shares fiscal resources among both districts.

The city of Malibu filed a petition for separation with the Los Angeles County of Education (LACOE) in the form of a resolution that was adopted by the City of Malibu in 2015. The petition, as submitted, does not provide any mechanism for addressing the fiscal impacts of separation on a remaining SMUSD. A preliminary hearing on the petition will be scheduled in December or January. The School Board will have an additional discussion during the board meeting on Thursday, November 16 in Santa Monica.

“I understand the strong interest in Malibu to separate; however, we need to ensure that all students in both communities will continue to have high-quality programs and services, and resources necessary for closing the achievement gap. Student outcomes are dependent on funding increases over time, and districts must prepare for possible fluctuations in the economy that may result in reduced revenue from property taxes and other revenue sources. At this time, it is clear that the remaining SMUSD will suffer in a separation, so I must balance that with the interests of Malibu to separate. I’m hopeful that with all of us working together we can find a solution that is amenable to families in both communities and will serve both Santa Monica and Malibu well for decades to come,” said Dr. Drati.