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Malibu Parents Group Seeking to Form Own School District

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

August 6 -- Backed up by a feasibility report, a group of Malibu parents has launched a campaign for Malibu to secede from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and transform the four Malibu schools -- three elementaries and one middle/high school -- into an independent district.

The parents say their voices are not being heard and they want local control over their children's education.

Reaction to the secession plan in Santa Monica has been minimal so far, with most of those active in school district affairs saying they know too little about the initiative to comment.

Malibu, with a population of 12,575, is a relatively new municipality, having become a city just 13 years ago. Malibu has one of the highest per-capita income levels in the county -- double that of Santa Monica.

A feasibility study the group commissioned concluded that Malibu meets the state criteria to have its own district and has the revenue base to support it without requiring extra help from the state.

School Superintendent John Deasy -- who angered many Malibuites this year by imposing a "tax" on monetary gifts to the schools -- said he was unaware of the report that lends credence to the effort.

"I believe no board member is aware of it, either, and in matters like this I really remain neutral," Deasy said. "This would be a citizen issue."

The pro-secession group -- which calls itself the Malibu Unified School Team, or MUST -- organized after a tumultuous winter in which Malibu parents clashed with Deasy over his "equity" proposal to place 15 percent of all donations to the district and district schools into a fund that would distribute money to all the schools based on a formula. But the parents say the gift policy itself was not the impetus for their decision to commission a feasibility study.

"The way the debate was handled by John Deasy, not the policy itself, but the way it was handled, energized a group of people," said MUST President Tom Sorce, who is also chair of Webster Elementary's site governance committee. "The gift policy itself is not a pivotal issue. It's the realization that people are not empowered to have a voice at the local level."

Malibu students comprise less than 20 percent of the district, "so the issues that come up before the SMMUSD board are Santa Monica-focused," Sorce said. "Malibu has its own set of issues that have to be dealt with, and we think we can do that best with local control."

The 11-member MUST Committee hired re-districting consultant Tom Griffin -- a former State Board of Education member who Deasy described as "certainly a legitimate name" -- to assess the feasibility of a Malibu district.

Griffin said at MUST's first public meeting Sunday that Malibu meets all nine of the state criteria for having its own district, including a requirement that the city be able to support a district without extra help from the state.

Between local revenues and standard state funding, Griffin said, "Malibu will have a very high-quality educational program."

The other state requirements mandate that the re-districting not negatively affect either district financially and not change schools' racial make-ups, among other criteria.

Creating a district is more complicated than fulfilling the state
requirements, however.

"Ultimately it's a political decision," Sorce said.

To get out of the gate, either the SMMUSD Board of Education or Malibu voters would have to approve the re-districting. After that, the decision would go to the county and then the state.

"On a good day it's a two-year process," Sorce said, "On a bad day it's a three- to three- and-a-half-year process."

There is little indication yet whether the school board -- currently
comprised of one Malibu and six Santa Monica members -- would support the split. The Santa Monica members could be wooed by the prospect of keeping within Santa Monica the entirety of the annual $6 million the district just negotiated from the Santa Monica City Council.

Maria Leon-Vazquez, a Santa Monica board member who is running for re-election, said she would be open to looking at Griffin's analyses. "I think the bottom line is to ensure that the needs of the children in Malibu are being met," she said.

The Malibu representative on the board, Mike Jordan, is not running for re-election in November, and so far only one Malibu resident, Kathy Wisnicki, is seeking a seat on the board.

Wisnicki said she did not yet have enough information to form an opinion on the secession movement. "Whether this goes through or not I've always been trying to serve the district as a whole and I'm going to continue to do that," she said.

She said Malibu had considered forming a separate district before, but "Malibu was never in a place where we could sustain ourselves, and that was always the bottom line."

Having only a fraction of the population of Santa Monica, Malibu has had little direct control in the district. With more than five times as many voters, Santa Monica largely controls who sits on the Board of Education.

Former Juan Cabrillo Elementary Principal Pat Cairns said she cannot remember a single Malibu resident holding a superintendent position in the 30 years she worked in the district until former Malibu High Principal Mike Matthews was appointed to an assistant superintendent post in June.

On Sunday, MUST began circulating petitions, seeking signatures of 3,000 to 4,000 Malibu voters to bring the item to the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization even in the event that the board votes against the secession plan.

Sorce said MUST plans to meet with Deasy and board members in the coming
weeks, although Deasy said he has not yet been contacted about a meeting.

Over the years, the two municipalities that comprise the district have been at loggerheads over some issues.

Malibu City Council Member Jeff Jennings, who chaired the district committee that recommended the creation of Malibu High School in the early 1990's, said he recalled Santa Monica opposition to Malibu High's formation. He said he did not recollect the exact nature of that opposition but thought it might have stemmed from concerns over the effects on Santa Monica High's athletic program.
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