City Council United in Effort to Explore Secession Feasibility
• Process Should Gain Access to Financial and Other Data Previously Unavailable to the Public
BY BILL KOENEKER
Except for one dissenter, all of the public speakers in Malibu City Council chambers Monday night, including the council members, agreed to proceed with the process to pursue a petition with the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization aka County Committee for the purpose of forming a unified school district from territory currently within the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
The council's school subcommittee consisting of Mayor Laura Rosenthal and Councilmember Lou La Monte has been researching the concept of Malibu forming its own school district and separating from the SMMUSD.
Rosenthal and La Monte, at this week's council meeting, successfully sought the support and consensus of their colleagues to initiate a "formal, multi-entity process to pursue a unification petition."
The mayor said she wanted to clarify some points at the outset. She said there is no effort underway to ask for city funds for polling or consultants. "We are not looking for municipal funds," she said.
What remained unspoken was that city money had already been used, since City Manager Jim Thorsen wrote the staff report and presumably was not working pro bono for the time he spent on the matter.
Rosenthal was also adamant that the separate district was not in response to the current school district effort to require all fundraising to be collected for district-wide purposes rather than earmarked for certain schools at the request of the donors.
"This process began a year ago and it has nothing to do with district-wide funding," the mayor said.
Both Rosenthal and La Monte quickly pointed out that the money issues are unknown and share a major role in the viability of a separate district.
"We don't know what the money issues are," said Rosenthal. "The city has a joint use agreement, so we have a stake in that."
"The concept is to find out if we can financially do this," said La Monte. "We have never gotten that information. This is information gathering. Nothing will be decided by the two of us. It will come back to the council and the people."
Rosenthal emphasized how important it is to arrive at a consensus with all of the agencies involved including district officials and the school board.
The goal is to build a consensus within a joint petition group. It would involve meetings with the district, the City of Santa Monica and the City of Malibu to work toward submitting a joint petition to the County Committee.
The joint petition would present an agreement in principle among the entities in regard to distribution of resources, taxes, facilities, joint use agreements and other relevant issues. Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich, who said she supported the effort, talked about some of the potentially difficult issues.
"It will be about the money. It has to be approved by the voters. I see this costing a lot of money. My question is, what is within the jurisdiction of the city?" she said.
City Attorney Christi Hogin responded, "It might sound like hair-splitting. From a legal point of view, public education is not a municipal matter. No city money can be spent on a school district. It is a misuse of public funds."
She said the California Constitution is clear on that, although over the years the courts have allowed cities to take increasing roles in public education.
Councilmember John Sibert said the problem has always been that there has been no information available. "The members of the city council are pursuing that information. We can do that?" he asked.
Hogin said, "Absolutely."
"I see this as essentially what we are doing. I support it," Sibert said.
Malibu city officials are apparently taking their cue from public statements and previous private conversations with district officials that the school district might cooperate with Malibu creating its own school district.
The lone dissenting voice was former council candidate Mike Sidley, who said it is an "ill conceived idea," and urged the city council to reject it.
Other public speakers encouraged the council to move forward.
Paul Grisanti said, "Absolutely the right thing to be doing. We are willing to help."
Craig Foster, PTA president for Webster School, urged the council to move forward. "Malibu has flirted with this. But never before has the board supported it. We are a super–minority. The district is not dedicated to the excellence of our [Malibu] schools," he said.
Ryan Embee said the potential success of any new district would depend upon what kind of "deal" Malibu could get. "I am reminded of the 'deal' the city got from the county—the miniscule amount of property taxes. Whatever the 'deal' it better be good," he said. "It is fraught with unintended consequences. It will be in the details."
Other interested parties need to be consulted including the California Teachers Association, Service Employees International Union, Community for Excellent Public Schools and Parent Teacher Associations.
Once a valid petition is submitted, the County Committee will study the feasibility of the petition.
"A united front among all the entities will be a key factor in the success of this petition," wrote Thorsen in his staff report.
The County Committee consists of 11 members—two from each of the five county supervisory districts and one member serving at-large.
Members are elected annually by a voting representative of each of the 94 school and community college district governing boards in Los Angeles County. The term of office is four years. The committee meets one time per month.
Any proposal to reorganize a school district must be considered by the County Committee requiring a public hearing, decision and recommendation, according to state law.
Several years ago, Rosenthal lead a failed attempt to initiate the process by getting 25 percent of the registered Malibu voters to petition the County Committee and found it to be rough sledding.
That is one of two ways the process can be initiated. This time Malibu has chosen the other effort by filing what is called a joint attempt, meaning having the approval of the board and filing the petition with the County Committee.
In 2004 Malibu parents organized another movement to separate local schools from Santa Monica.
A feasibility study was undertaken, according to published reports, by the Malibu Unified School Team, LLC, which concluded the split was feasible. At the time, split leaders said the separation would allow Malibu schools to more effectively raise money from voluntary contributions and develop programs they did not have and wanted.
That effort also failed.