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School Board to Pledge Support of Malibu Secession Process

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

August 30 -- The School Board indicated last week that it would support Malibu’s secession from the School District if the parents group organizing the separation initiative gathers the signatures of 25 percent of that city’s electorate.

In unanimous agreement, the board on Thursday said it would make a formal promise to
sign the petition being circulated by the Malibu Unified School Team (MUST) if the approximately 3,000 necessary signatures are collected.

The board will do so either by voting on a resolution at its next meeting or writing a letter of support, whichever action County regulations would recognize as a formal pledge to sign the petition.

To initiate the separation process, MUST actually needs the signatures of only 25 percent of Malibu voters or those of a majority of the board, not both; either one of the two would send the petition to the County for review.

But MUST parents said Thursday that they want to gather both voter and board signatures to make sure they have a strong support base before they bring the separation petition to the County and State school boards.

"We determined that it would be foolish to proceed with this process without knowing that at least 25 percent of (Malibu voters) would sign a petition,” said Mitch Clarfield, the group’s treasurer. “We just want to make sure that everybody's on board."

The board's agreement to support the process followed the recommendation of Superintendent John Deasy, who said he had met with the MUST parents and felt the district staff and the board should not impede the democratic process.

"I strongly recommend that a position of neutrality be taken throughout this process," said Deasy. Since the MUST made its intentions public, Deasy has said the potential separation was a "citizen issue" and not something for school officials to decide.

"Since it's apparent that the community of Malibu, or at least a segment thereof, wants to examine these issues, I suggest that nothing stand in the way of the democratic process," Deasy told the board Thursday.

The board members seemed to agree with Deasy's sentiment.

Mike Jordan, the board's only Malibu resident, said the discussion of separation, though a difficult subject to broach, was "a dialogue that needs to go forward."

"Even though we have a limited role [in the decision]," Jordan said, "I think it needs to go on the record that we support the people of Malibu."

"I think it's important that we support this process," said Vice Chair Emily Bloomfield. "I also respect the fact that this group is going to the voters (to collect signatures) and really doing their due diligence."

The MUST began meeting a few months ago after Malibu parents clashed with Deasy over his idea -- which has since been preliminarily approved by the board -- to place 15 percent of donations to schools into an "equity fund" that would be distributed throughout the district.

MUST President Tom Sorce said in an interview earlier in the summer that the gift policy itself was not a pivotal issue, but the16 or so parents were "energized" by the way Deasy handled the debate, in which many felt that Malibu voices were ignored.

Sandy Thacker, MUST secretary, said Thursday that MUST's initiative to split from Santa Monica stemmed from a desire to have local control over Malibu students' education, not from problems with Santa Monica.

Malibu students' interests "must by nature come second" in the Santa Monica-Malibu district, because Malibu students make up less than 20 percent of the student population, Thacker said in comments to the board.

"The majority must rule," she said. "We know and acknowledge that you are not in any way at fault. You inherited a district that is flawed in its architecture."

MUST hired Dr. Thomas Griffin, a former State Board of Education member who is now a re-districting consultant, to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether Malibu could support its own district.

Griffin concluded that Malibu met the nine state criteria to have its own district, including requirements that Malibu could financially support the district without extra help from the state and that Malibu's secession would not have a negative financial impact on Santa Monica schools.

If MUST succeeds in collecting the necessary 25 percent of Malibu voters' signatures, for which they have already begun circulating petitions, the board members have pledged to add their signatures, and the petition will then go to the County Board of Education.

Even if the county board disapproves the petition, it would still go to the State Board of Education, Griffin said. He said the petition would have about a 50 percent chance of being approved by the State even without a positive recommendation from the County.

If it gained state approval, the final decision about whether to secede would go to the Malibu voters. A majority would have to vote in favor to implement the re-districting.

This is not the first time Malibu has tried to split from Santa Monica. In 1980, before Malibu had its own high school, the City submitted a re-districting petition to the County but stopped the process when the County board voted against it.

At the time, the district board did what it seems poised to do now -- it took no position on the separation itself but supported the process. There was also talk of a Malibu district at the time Malibu High was formed a decade ago, but people involved in that discussion said Malibuites concluded they did not have the tax base to support a district at that time.

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