Last Tuesday, just two days before classes resumed at public schools across Malibu, school superintendent Sandra Lyon sent out a back-to-school letter to parents and staff which dealt with two highly controversial topics around town.
The first was the letter’s detailed description of efforts made by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) to remove “verified” samples of PCBs (toxic building materials found in some Malibu schools). This was met with the anticipated skepticism among groups who mistrust the SMMUSD handling of the situation.
The reaction to the second may have surprised Lyon.
“If you visited Malibu High School over the summer, you may have noticed an issue with gophers and squirrels including dangerous holes in some of the fields. We understand the safety and health issues these rodents present and we are working quickly to resolve this problem. We will inform parents of our plans prior to these efforts,” the letter briefly stated. The district settled on the use of strychnine and fumitoxin to poison the rodents.
Then the firestorm began.
“As you well know, the City Council unanimously supported a statement against the use of rodenticides and other poisons for pest control in the city,” reads an email sent last week from Malibu Mayor John Sibert to Lyon and shared with The Malibu Times.
“To have the school district ignore these efforts and plan an extensive fumigation and poison program on the MHS fields, particularly during the school year when they are in use, is extremely disturbing,” the letter continued. “I hope you would hold off on this and consider other alternatives. The city and, I’m sure, Poison Free Malibu is willing to help. Let me know if you are willing to consider other options.”
SMMUSD Board Member Craig Foster tried to find compromise among parents and the district in a letter he sent to concerned parents and community members, also shared with The Malibu Times.
“I expect that all of us share two beliefs. First, we believe that our children should be free to play on our schools’ fields, safe from pest-related injury. Second, we believe that our pest management should be mindful and honor the delicate nature of our shared ecosystem,” Foster’s letter stated. “I am not happy that the treatment is going ahead and I know I am far from alone in my upset. However, given where we are right now, I believe this is the choice that best meets all of our responsibilities.”
A similar message was shared Monday in a statement that went out to Malibu parents and local media from district spokespeople.
“In this situation, the gopher infestation, damage to play fields and risk to students was great enough to warrant a serious approach,” the statement read. “District administration and the Board of Directors agreed that this issue needed immediate attention to prevent student and spectator injury on our playing fields.”
Sibert wasn’t buying it.
“The reports we were getting was an infestation of gophers,” Sibert said at Monday’s City Council meeting. “Well, gophers are solitary, folks. You don’t get an ‘infestation’ of gophers.
“It’s amazing to me the district doesn’t recognize this.”
According to statements made at the meeting, the district was not sympathetic with Sibert’s suggestion of working with the City of Malibu and local nonprofit Poison Free Malibu to find another solution. This sparked anger from several city officials.
“I didn’t get a satisfactory response,” Sibert told council Monday. “We really do need our own school district.”
This was a call echoing Council Members Skylar Peak and Laura Rosenthal, who also pointed to the Santa Monica-based district’s handling of the pest situation as a clear sign they don’t understand Malibu values.
“I really think this is another reason for people to sign [a petition calling for district separation] because with our own district, this wouldn’t be happening,” Peak said.
Editor's note: A board discussion to review the district's pest management policy has been scheduled for the Sept. 17 SMMUSD Board of Education meeting in Santa Monica.