The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District intends to dismiss up to 46 educators, part of a series of cost-reducing measures to combat declining student enrollment and a potential $10.8 million deficit going into the 2020-21 school year.

The measures are part of the district’s Stabilization Plan, which includes restructuring certain services, freezing a technology refresh, reducing overtime, restricting district vehicle usage and the layoffs. Approximately 54 pink slips were handed out earlier this month—around nine of those were handed to Malibu teachers. 

A pink slip puts those affected on notice about a potential termination, generally due to an adjustment of staffing based on projected enrollment and other factors. Per state law, they must be notified by March 15. The way in which slips were given out has Malibu teachers frustrated.

“The morale is low,” Malibu High School librarian and teachers’ union representative Sarah Ryan, who was not given a pink slip, said in a phone call with The Malibu Times. “There’s some distrust that has been created by the district.”

Under California law, school districts are required to lay off teachers based on seniority. However, the Education Code allows for exceptions to this rule as long as a “compelling need” to retain the employees exists. In a Feb. 20 resolution, the district outlined the exceptions, which include teachers with experience in the district’s relatively new personalized project-based learning (PPBL) pathway and athletic directors (ADs) who “possess at least three years of actual experience as an athletic director within the last five years.”

Ryan called the pathway funding “outrageous,” adding: “You don’t do that when you’re in the red.”

The athletic directors exception is important in the case of Malibu Middle School physical education teacher Lisa Lambert.

Lambert received a pink slip from SMMUSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Dr. Mark Kelly on March 13, despite 14 years of experience at the school

“He said that based on eliminating positions and my place in seniority that I was getting a pink slip,” she described.

Five full-time employees with physical education services were slated to be laid off. However, seven employees, including Lambert, were given pink slips out of 19 teachers based on the seniority system. This count does not include the district’s athletic directors due to the exception.

There are only two ADs: Chris Neier at Malibu High School and Evan Fujinaga at Santa Monica High School. Neier has been in his role since 2007; Fujinaga was hired in 2017. 

Lambert has seniority over Neier and Fujinaga. If the two had been included in the count, she may not have received a pink slip.

The school district HR staff did not respond to an inquiry asking about the rationale behind a three-year stipulation, per district spokesperson Gail Pinsker.

Ryan likened the situation, potentially eliminating Malibu’s only female PE teacher, to the creation of “what feels like a boys’ club.”

“If you’re doing something that [Superintendent Dr. Ben] Drati is into, such as project-based learning or football, you seem safer,” she mused. 

Nancy Levy, who has spent 26 years teaching in Malibu, said, “All I know is that there is a budget crisis [and] they’ve been planning on firing 45 teachers to solve the budget crisis.”

“I got a lot of people saying, ‘Why? I don’t understand it,’” she added.

Levy spoke to a lack of information given to teachers and what seemed to be a lack of “priority” from the school district, echoed by Ryan and Lambert.

“In my 20 years [in] Malibu, it feels like the district isn’t that interested in Malibu,” Ryan said.

For these educators, the pink slips further chip away at the learning opportunity and diversity present in Malibu. 

Last month, as previously reported in The Malibu Times, the district’s board of education was exploring the option of freezing intra/interdistrict permitting categories as a possible way to save money. These categories include permits that allow the children of city or district employees to attend the schools in the area their parents work. This has Malibu educators and families alarmed—while Santa Monica schools maintain a larger, more diverse student body due to the surrounding community, Malibu schools remain smaller and much more homogenous. 

The permits have been posted to the website as of Tuesday afternoon, though the board has yet to vote on the future of permitting. 

Malibu resident Seth Jacobson, SMMUSD Financial Oversight Committee chair, was concerned about the areas chosen to make cuts. In an email to The Malibu Times, he wrote, “... we are struggling as a district to stay relevant, yet they are putting a freeze on technology upgrades which would be essential in Malibu as we have terrible connectivity issues and we spent tons of funding on new computers that kids cannot use because of lack of internet connectivity. Let alone the safety issues of not being able to connect to the world when we have major natural disasters.”

He also highlighted that the “designations for teachers are disproportionately focused on our elementary school teachers and physical education teachers.”

In light of COVID-19 and its effects on day-to-day life, Malibuites and Santa Monicans voiced their concern over the layoffs at the last board of education meeting held remotely last Thursday, March 19.

Board Member Oscar de la Torre was the first to bring up layoffs early on in the meeting, posing a potential rescinding of layoffs: “Being that it’s kind of hard to pull everybody together when people get pink slips, you know, so maybe this is one of those sort of very difficult, challenging situations where we need to pull our staff together and rescinding layoffs might be a strategy.”

One public speaker called the layoffs “unconscionable”; another, a student, posed this question to the board: “Why can’t teachers who are tired of teaching, or who are mean or rude to students, or who have low passing rates be let go? Why does it have to be the good ones?” 

When asked about layoffs in light of the pandemic and school closures, district spokesperson Gail Pinsker said, “The school board and district leadership are watching this situation very carefully. It’s a fluid situation with many unknowns right now,” but ultimately referred to a letter written by Drati dated March 20.

While the layoff notices have the potential to be rescinded based on final decisions made by the school district later in the school year, Lambert now worries for her future.

“It’s really hard to be able to find PE jobs,” she explained. “It’s taken 14 years to get to seventh in seniority.”

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