Separation Anxiety: The Fiscal Implications of Splitting SMMUSD

By Jennifer Eden


For the past two years Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) has been faced with an alarming (for Santa Monica) and very real (for Malibu) possibility of division. Tuesday Nov. 7 saw SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati pen an open message indicating the current district’s opposition to the split.

“If SMMUSD were to split into two districts, there would be a negative fiscal impact on the remaining Santa Monica portion of the district,” Drati’s letter reads. “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.”

And that is exactly why the City of Malibu wants to go it alone.

“It is very simple for Malibu,” Malibu City Councilmember Laura Rosenthal told The Mirror, speaking on behalf of herself and fellow Councilmember Rick Mullen who form Malibu City’s ad-hoc committee on the issue. “We want local control and want the individuals on our school board to be accountable to the residents of our community. Even if every Malibu person voted for one board member, it wouldn’t be enough to get them elected. We want our schools to reflect our community, not Santa Monica.”

Tired of a beleaguered negotiating process within the District, the City of Malibu sent in a petition for separation from the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) early September, which would enable them to bypass any District decisions if approved.

Receipt of the petition was acknowledged Nov. 1 and the County Committee on School District Reorganization will hold a preliminary hearing early January to determine when and what to review and whether the petition will be denied or enter official process.

Just prior to the official receipt acknowledgement, the School Board discussed financial reports on the possible split for more than six hours Oct. 30, with members expressing concerns that the fiscal impact “remains too great on Santa Monica,” according to Drati’s letter.

The Board proffered two plans as an alternative: 1. Exploring options to enable Malibu to have greater control over its schools while remaining in SMMUSD and 2. Looking at a revenue-sharing formula for a period of up to 50 years. While neither of which may satisfy Malibu, Rosenthal said that they may consider providing some funds to Santa Monica.

“We want our schools to reflect our community, not Santa Monica,” Rosenthal explained, adding that the geographical divide of the District, which is grandfathered in, would be illegal under today’s regulations as it has Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) dividing it. “Malibu has absolutely no say in how its schools are run. This manifests itself in many different ways, including that we get fewer educational choices, fewer services and very limited administrative support.”

“We also have different values and thresholds in relations to environmental and health related issues than the values of the current Santa Monica school board and administration,” she added.

For Drati: “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.”