This Saturday, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will hold its second hearing on maps that were submitted as part of a plan to create seven local elections for the district’s school board instead of the district-wide elections the district currently has in-place. Those pushing for change argue that the current electoral system is unfair to political minorities and out-of-compliance with state laws requiring fair elections. 

The maps could be used as a basis for a ballot measure where voters could decide whether to continue with the current elections or move to seven smaller “trustee area” elections. The hearingswill be in-person and virtual on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024 at 9:30 a.m. in the SMMUSD District Office boardroom, 1717 4th St. Santa Monica. 

In its announcement of the hearings, the District notes that the hearings are not about whether or not SMMUSD should move to district-wide elections, but just on the legality and practicality of the maps submitted for the new districts. The maps are not proving popular, as they give a disproportionate amount of voting power to residents of Malibu who are given the majority of two of the seven districts in the maps after being combined with two seemingly random neighborhoods in Santa Monica.

Absurd by design?

District one merges the western portion of Malibu with Santa Monica’s Sunset Park neighborhood District 1. The eastern half of Malibu is combined with part of the Wilmont and North of Montana neighborhoods in Santa Monica to create District 3.

Even supporters of redistricting find problems with the proposed maps. In an op/ed in the Daily Press, redistricting supporter Miles Warner writes, “The first of the three proposed maps provided for the SMMUSD districting is of course absurd. It is meant as a rebuke to the school district and LACOE’s insistence that Malibu is contiguous with Santa Monica. The opponents of the map know this an absurd map, because it’s meant to be! But they have yet to provide an alternate map.”

And indeed, the existing map of the school district is a strange one. The cities of Malibu and Santa Monica don’t share a border, but instead are separated by the Los Angeles community the Pacific Palisades. If Warner 

Putting the onus to create a workable district election plan on the people that don’t want a district-wide election is an interesting strategy, and not one SMMUSD leadership seems interested in doing. On January 16, the District released its official response to the new maps in a 28 page letter that denies that both that there are any issues with the current system of electing school board members and that the maps make either political or legal sense.

“Trustee Area No. 1, displayed in yellow, is divided into two separate geographic territories: a “Malibu portion,” consisting of the westernmost area of the City of Malibu and the unincorporated Los Angeles County area surrounding Malibu; and a “Santa Monica portion,” comprising the easternmost area of the City of Santa Monica. Indeed, Trustee Area No. 1 could scarcely be more non- contiguous, for the two portions of this electoral district are on the opposite ends of SMMUSD, separated by the entirety of the remainder of the school district territory,” writes the district in its response.

But if both supporters and opponents of the district electoral system have concerns with the proposed maps; then what is the point? Warner hints at it in his op/ed when he states that, “ It is meant as a rebuke to the school district and LACOE’s insistence that Malibu is contiguous with Santa Monica.” At the same time that a ballot measure moves forward, there are negotiations ongoing between the City of Malibu and the school district on splitting the district between the two cities. 

One of Malibu’s claims as to why the district should be split is because the cities of Malibu and Santa Monica do not share a border and are not one contiguous land mass. As a result of its response to these proposed maps, the District has stated that neither of the two districts that included portions of Malibu are contiguous with portions of Santa Monica.

The application to change the elections and the maps were submitted by lawyer Kevin Shenkman on behalf of Malibu resident Jennifer de Nicola and Santa Monica community activist Patricia Crane. Shenkman also represents the plaintiffs suing the City of Santa Monica who are attempting to force the city to change its election to district-based ones.

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