MALIBU, Calif. — For years, Craig Foster, a retired Wall Street executive turned public school activist, has been zipping up and down the Pacific Coast Highway seeking support for a split between Malibu, the mostly wealthy, mostly white city of beachfront bungalows and modernist mansions, and Santa Monica, the equally picturesque but less moneyed city that shares its school district.
Foster insists that once Malibu is independent from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, the city could roll out a K-12 foreign language program, beef up its middle school soccer offerings, and maybe even design an International Baccalaureate track for the city’s four schools.
The idea has been met with much enthusiasm in Malibu, where parents have long sought more autonomy from the increasingly diverse district.
But it has not been received as well in Santa Monica, home to all seven of the school board members and close to 85 percent of the school district residents, who would need to approve the split.
And that has presented a considerable hurdle until this year, when Foster and his team began trying a new approach: attempting to convince Santa Monica that it, too, could benefit from going solo. If this approach works, it could offer an enticing template for other wealthy districts around the country that have sought independence from their less well-off partners but have been stymied by allegations that they are looking out for their own children at the expense of other people’s kids.
It’s too early to tell if the new strategy will be successful and if local civil rights activists will mount their own campaign to thwart a split that would create a predominately white school district in a state that is now mostly minority. But so far, Foster says he and his allies are making major inroads, culling the support of Santa Monica school board members, local politicians, and at least some Santa Monica parents.
How he is doing that was in evidence on a recent fall evening, when Foster, who heads the three-year-old non-profit Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, outlined the strategy to a group of Malibu parents inside City Hall. They were eager for news on “next steps” in what has become a near obsession at Parent Teacher Association meetings and at Little League games.
“We have come to a very, I think, heartwarming conclusion that what we needed to do is reach out to the stakeholders in both cities and say: ‘Look, this is great for all of us. Let’s band together and do this.’”
Glancing around the room, he proceeded to explain how that might happen. He tapped on a PowerPoint screen with a chart showing how much money his group predicted Santa Monica would gain annually for its own school budget if Malibu were to leave.
“$1.9 million,” it read.
Later, before parents shuffled out the door, Foster added: “We should soon enter a place where Santa Monica steps forward and says: ‘We want to separate.’”
In recent years, “separatist movements” like the one Foster is leading have become increasingly common, as parents in mostly white, mostly middle-class communities in and around Memphis, Salt Lake City, Baton Rouge and Dallas, have sought to break way from their more economically and racially diverse school districts.
Like Foster, these parents say they are eager to detach themselves from overly bureaucratic school administrations. Others worry that their association with schools that serve at-risk students are hurting their property values. All cite a desire for more local control at a time when many districts are becoming increasingly focused on how their neediest students do on state tests.
Many of these parents say they are acting out of anger and frustration. And Malibu parents admit they are no strangers to what they half-jokingly refer to as the “tantrum approach.” But their frustration, they say, has not helped them achieve the autonomy they want, hence the new tactic.
And from a strategic standpoint, that is what is setting this Southern California separatist movement apart.
Sitting in the Malibu High School library, one morning this fall, Parent Teacher Student Association president Karen Farrer, a long-time advocate for the Malibu split, says there is a long list of reasons why Malibu wants to leave.
There was the time, a few years back, when parents lost their impassioned bid to turn Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School into a charter, which Foster refers to as a “heart-breaking failure.” There is rage over the district’s handling of potentially toxic PCB discoveries inside at least two of Malibu’s schools. There are the disparities between Barnum Hall, Santa Monica High School’s 1,250-seat recently renovated art deco theater, and the small theater on the Malibu High School campus. And there is a general feeling that with no representation on the school board and 19 miles of often-clogged, albeit scenic highway separating the two cities, leaders in Santa Monica don’t really care what is happening at Malibu schools. It is a claim that the superintendent Sandra Lyon and many school board members would contest.
But perhaps, most agitating to Malibu parents, was a recent a change in the district’s PTA fundraising policy, designed and spearheaded by its new superintendent, to create more equitable offerings between schools with wealthy PTAs and those without.
The policy has outraged Malibu parents, because it is now prohibiting them from a long-held practice of pumping private dollars into schools for the hiring of teaching aides, something many Santa Monica schools could not afford to do.
Farrer says outsiders often look at the two cities and assume that Malibu has the upper hand.
“They have always looked at us as an elite pampered place and, in a lot of cases, our conditions are substandard,” she said of Malibu’s four public schools. “We are geographically isolated and outnumbered.”
Malibu does have more money. The median household income is $135,530, according to the United States Census Bureau, close to double that of Santa Monica, whose median household income is $72,271. And Santa Monica educates more at-risk students. About 30 percent of the students at Santa Monica High School, which is 41 percent white, receive free or reduced lunch, compared to 12 percent at Malibu High School, which is about 80 percent white.
But with 12,861 residents – compared to Santa Monica’s 92,472 – it has been historically challenging for Malibu parents to get their residents on the seven- member school board. The last Malibu parent elected to the board was in 2004. And Malibu parents say “in living memory,” they’ve never had more than one member at a time.
Two years ago, Farrer, Foster and a third parent ran for school board on what Foster refers to as an “outsider” platform that advocated for a change of “culture” within the district. None of them won.
This year, Foster, who is running again and believes that earlier campaign may have been too negative, is taking a cheerier tone even as he seeks to use the platform to further push for a district split.
“I am here to do what is best for all students,” he is telling voters, as he drives around the two cities with his new lawn signs piled up in the back seat.
Advocates who assist communities seeking to break away from larger more diverse districts contend that these grassroots separatist campaigns can be very democratic because they often result in more parental say in life at the neighborhood school.
“It puts the control in the hands of the parents,” said Lionel Rainey, a political strategist whose firm LR3 Consulting, is advising parents in one Baton Rouge area community that is also seeking its own school district. “And at the end of the day, it should be parents who are making the decision about what is best for their children and what is best for their school systems.”
But critics like Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, consider them deeply troubling, mostly because so many communities around the country are already divided along racial and economic lines. Today, American schools are more segregated than they were in 1968, according to a recently released report by Orfield’s organization.
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Most students in Malibu, which joined the Santa Monica district decades ago, opt not to commute to the more diverse Santa Monica schools, and separating the two communities means that students will be even less likely to do so.
“These parents think they are protecting their kids,” said Orfield. “But what they are doing is leaving their children unprepared for the society in which they are going to live and work.”
The day after the Malibu meeting, inside a bustling diner in downtown Santa Monica, Rochelle Fanali nibbled on a Caesar salad and chatted about the Malibu plan, which she calls “more of a private school vision.”
Fanali, a Santa Monica resident, and the mother of a sophomore at Santa Monica High School, is the president of the PTA Council – an umbrella organization of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District PTAs.
She says she appreciates that the number Foster is citing – that Santa Monica would gain $1.9 million annually if the split happened – wasn’t pulled out of thin air.
Indeed, it comes from a comprehensive impact report by WestEd, a non-partisan, education consulting firm that cost Advocates for Malibu Schools $33,500.
But Fanali says the problem with the number is that it predates a recent switch in the state funding formula for California schools, passed by the state legislature last summer. The switch was designed to better compensate poorer schools.
She also says the district utilizes dollars from a parcel tax and the sale of several bonds for operating expenses and construction projects. These would have to be divided if there was a split.
“The big issue with separation is we don’t know what it looks like,” she said. “We have really entangled finances.”
School board member Ben Allen, who is currently running for a state senate seat, sees other problems. Allen says Foster’s numbers, which include a $2.6 million annual net gain for Malibu with a split, assume that the new Malibu district would be funded through a formula designed for well-to-do districts with high tax bases and low student populations, known here as Basic Aid districts. But it doesn’t take into account that some of the state’s education leaders have pushed to get the formula and its qualifying factors changed, insisting that it unfairly benefits wealthy communities. If that happened, Malibu’s financing could decline.
To put the plan into effect, the city will have to garner signatures from 25 percent of the affected population and then present its case to the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the California State Board of Education before eventually bringing it to a vote, which people on all sides say could take years.
”It’s a really time-consuming process,” said superintendent Lyon. “There really isn’t a shortcut.”
Despite these hesitations, Foster says he’s seeing progress.
At least one school board member, Nimish Patel, has come out in favor of the split, saying he is very sympathetic to Malibu’s plight. “I really understand why they would be frustrated not having a board member,” he said.
And in the fall, Foster says, the group won a significant victory when Lyon included a note about the possible split in the online back-to-school email sent out to parents. The district also announced it was commissioning its own feasibility study on the issue.
Another victory: Foster has culled the support of at least some leaders inside one of Santa Monica’s most liberal-leaning advocacy group, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, which some in Malibu worried would resist the split.
The group’s co-chairman Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, who is also running for a school board seat in November, showed up at Foster’s last meeting in Malibu to express his support. Tahvildaran-Jesswein, the associate director of the Public Policy Institute at Santa Monica College, said he thought the city’s desire to manage its own school district was noteworthy and noble, a sign that democracy was alive and well in America. “It’s truly the right thing to do,” he said.
Around the country, it is state legislatures who govern laws about district fissures, and in some communities where parents have sought a school district split, appeasing the other side has not been necessary. The cities and towns wanting to split have been big enough and mobilized enough to win the necessary votes, or have managed to bring state legislatures to their side, in some cases passing legislation that would fast-track the divorces.
In Alabama, for example, officials have often favored middle-class suburban cities that want to split more diverse urban districts, with an across-the-board law that allows cities with populations over 5,000 to form their own school systems.
Foster says he believes his group has little chance of changing California law, which makes the split process time-consuming, under the best of circumstances, such as when residents are in favor, and nearly impossible if there is serious opposition. That’s why he’s trying to win universal support.
Ambling across the Malibu High School football field one afternoon this September, Foster said his many meetings with Santa Monica residents, school officials, and the mayor have led him to believe that this prosperous beach town will soon be set free.
He added that the time and energy these officials have had to spend on disgruntled residents from Malibu begging for an out may end up playing a significant role in Santa Monica’s decision to support the break.
“This isn’t just local control for us,” he said, showing a visitor the stunning view of the azure blue coastline that the two cities enjoy. “It’s local control for them. Managing an empire has got to be a big pain in the butt.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.