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While Malibu leaders, teachers and parents say the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District treats students here in an inequitable fashion, the district says a Malibu district as drafted would do harm to Santa Monica students. Scott Steepleton/Surfside News file
Scott Steepleton, Editor
6:12 am PDT April 18, 2021

Having been called racist, elitist and the left’s latest trope — rich people — proponents of a stand-alone Malibu school district got the chance this weekend to share what actually motivates them to seek a split from a school district based in and seemingly focused on Santa Monica.

They want to make decisions on behalf of and be accountable to the children and families in the city and surrounding area, and are convinced going their own way is the best way to achieve those goals.

Speaking during a rare Saturday meeting of the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Committee on School District Organization, parents, teachers and city leaders past and present defended their position, decried fiscal mismanagement in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified District and wondered how officials who wouldn’t even open campus bathrooms during the Woolsey Fire can believably argue they have Malibu’s interests at heart.

The Zoom meeting was a preliminary hearing on a petition brought forward by the city to form a district by and for Malibu — and do it in a way that ensures the Santa Monica district is not harmed in the process.

To that end, the city proposed a binding agreement to let the county and its approved consultant determine the financial terms of a split.

Santa Monica’s seven-member Board of Education balked at the idea by a 5-2 vote, the majority claiming before even knowing what the county might come up with that it surely would hurt those most in need. (One of the dissenters was Malibu’s lone representative on the board, Craig Foster.)

In the process, the district kicked off its presentation arguing the impropriety of a petition brought forward by the city.

That’s a disingenuous position, according to Malibu resident and finance professional Manel Sweetmore, who served on a committee that came up with a separation plan equitable to both sides only to have it rebuffed by the board.

“Today (the district) opened the session trying to say that the petition was not legitimate because it was brought by the city,” Sweetmore said. “They know full well (the city) had the required number of petitions from residents.”

Saturday’s hearing started with a presentation by the city, followed by the district. Members of the public for and against the proposal had an hour for each side, and then it went to the committee for questions.

Additional briefings by the two sides will take place in June.

Malibu High 1985 graduate Carl Randall used his 90 seconds of speaking time to tell the committee about some of the inequities in place right now.

“My Malibu High 10th grade daughter has been playing the violin since she was 5,” he said. “Each year the district puts on orchestra and vocal concerts called ‘Stairway of the Stars.’ It’s a big deal. Students from both cities gather to sing or play their instruments in Barnum Hall on the Samohi campus. It is truly the only time kids from Santa Monica and Malibu mix.”
Several years ago, Randall continued, a decision was made by officials in Santa Monica to move the usual rehearsals from after school to during Samohi orchestra class hours.

“Malibu was not consulted,” he said. “To be able to make rehearsals, Malibu students would need to miss their entire school day due to travel. Santa Monica students wouldn't be affected.”

Malibu kids unanimously decided they could not afford to miss that much school. Santa Monica’s response was, said Randall, “We understand.”
“Not ‘We understand. Let's go back to long standing policy’ … Not ‘What sort of solution can we find so Malibu kids can join us.’”

“It is time for Malibu students to stop being an afterthought,” Randall said. “We ask that you grant us the right to govern the educational opportunities of our children, the same opportunities granted to children of Santa Monica.”

Malibu City Council member Bruce Silverstein said, “It’s time for  a no-fault divorce based on irreconcilable differences.”

“Please use your authority to set our community free to pursue a path that is right for the students who live in this rural enclave with very different interests and needs from that of Santa Monica,” Silverstein said.

Jennifer Paras Pappas attacked the district’s ability to serve Malibu in times of crisis as well as recent anti-separation material from the district painting Malibu as racist.

“I am a Filipino American, moved to Malibu 11 years ago. I have never felt discrimination or felt unequal or felt I was being crushed by the white population here in Maliubu,” she said. “It’s offensive that I received documents from my school district saying that that is what’s going to happen.”

As for her other concern, the mom of three said her kids suffered learning loss because the district did not provide adequate help to Malibu residents affected by the Woolsey Fire.

“My poor second grader still can’t read,” she said, adding tutoring costs her several thousand a month.

“This district has mismanaged and constantly ignores the needs of the Malibu community and what we need to help our kids through crisis situations.”

It’s not only Malibu residents who favor the split. Kat Blandino of Santa Monica said the district “has long failed our students and they’ve long failed Malibu students. And now under the guise of student equity, SMMUSD continues to hold Malibu students and families hostage for their money.”

“This is what it’s really about,” Blandino continued. “SMMUSD is trying to cover up years of gross fiscal mismanagement. SMMUSD has been pushing propaganda, using their power to inflate and create fear among Santa Monica families that they will get less.”

Former Malibu Mayor Ken Kearsley summed up Santa Monica's position as tyranny of the majority.

“The city of Santa Monica views Malibu as a cow on a grass hill to be milked occasionally, probably annually for their benefit,” he said.

“We need separation, we need local control and we need equity.”

Paul Grisanti, a 48-year Malibu resident who sent three kids through local schools and is a first term City Council member, addressed declining enrollment in Malibu.

“We started to see families move away when the district started by crushing PTA fundraising and made it clear that they did not want additional programs in Malibu,” he said. “Later, PCBs were discovered and the school district’s lack of response and legal battle (which it lost) resulted in other families and students leaving.”

“The coup de grâce,” said Grisanti, “has been the Woolsey Fire (2018) which destroyed over 700 homes in the proposed Malibu school district.”

Families that had to temporarily move out of the district because they lost their home, he added, were told they couldn’t keep their kids in the district.

He urged the committee to accept the Malibu proposal.

Laura Rosenthal, who served as Malibu mayor in 2016 and who also served on the six-member Malibu Unified Negotiations Committee — three from each city recounted the tireless hours put in by the committee.

“We were only supposed to meet for a couple months, but we ended up meeting 49 times,” she said. “We came to a unanimous decision, all six of us. And then what happened? The (board) just threw it away. It didn’t fit into their narrative.”

The district, she added, repeatedly negotiated in bad faith and ignored repeated requests to hand over the financial information necessary for negotiations.

Now, the board says no to be bound by whatever the county says is an equitable split.

“There’s clearly enough money to go around,” Rosenthal said. “This loss argument is disingenuous.”

Speakers on the other side included union representatives who claimed, without providing evidence how, a split would hurt the kids in greatest need.

Manny Rangel of SEIU Local 99, the union representing 50,000 teachers assistants, playground workers, bus drivers, maintenance workers and others working in schools, told the committee that a Malibu district “would make education worse for the most vulnerable students.”

He also tried convincing the committee that a decision in Malibu’s favor would affect districts across the state “with regional income disparities like the ones within the district boundaries of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified.”

“The decision to allow Malibu to secede has greater repercussions and would undoubtedly exacerbate educational inequalities on many levels.”

Sarah Braff, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, said her union opposes the split as it was presented to the committee.

“I think we need to separate the two issues of secession and fairness and equity in money,” she said. “I don't think that anyone’s fighting the concept of separation. But the (Education Code) says it will be an equitable division and that it would not promote racial or ethnic discriminagtion or segregation.”
“We disagree as to how this proposal will create a large imbalance, which creates additional favor for our more privileged students,” Braff said.

The ACLU of Southern California also opposes Malibu unification.

“One of our core missions is to fight for students who are traditionally marginalized and under-resourced and to advocate for educational equity for all,” said Victor Leung, director of education.

“The current plan will increase racial segregation and amplify existing inequities that realocate funding between students in an unfair manner.”

Malibu’s petition, Leung said, would create “a new school district that comprises more white students and more higher income students and it will provide those students with a greater share of funding.”

The ACLU recommends changing the proposal to ensure “higher needs” students get their fair share.

Malibu resident Heather Anderson, the mother of two MHS grads, turned a newspaper ad purchased by the district listing a variety of programs that supposedly would be cut if Malibu gets its way back on the district.

“This entire bullet point list should be Exhibit A in Malibu’s argument about inequity,” she said.

“The funny thing is — well, it’s actually the unjust thing — is that many of these programs have not, are not and will never be on our end of Pacific Coast Highway. Malibu does not enjoy a grade 1 through 4 summer language academy. What family engagement programs are they talking about? Malibu enjoys no (Career Technical Education) programs … no career lab, no academy. If kids need credit recovery they have to travel to Samohi.”

Anderson said the list got her imagining a new scene in the Cinderella fairytale: “The three talented and wealthy Santa Monica step-sisters complain that if Cinderella moves from their mansion, who will wash their ball gowns and who will polish their jewels for the ball?”

“Malibu’s contributions have provided the means for Santa Monica to create a fabulous program. But Malibu is tired of carrying the water for Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District without equity or accountability,” Anderson said.

“It is time for those three wealthy beautiful and talented step-sisters in Santa Monica to get real and figure out how to wash their own dang clothes.”