Just over a year after the Woolsey Fire ravaged western Malibu, local school administrators are left struggling to stem dwindling student enrollment.

Those affected most by the fire include Malibu Elementary, Malibu Middle and High and Our Lady of Malibu (OLM) schools.

Lisa Hall, office administrator at OLM, said the school had 100 students enrolled during the 2018-19 school year. This school year, it had 69 enrolled.

“Awful fire, we lost quite a few families that had multiple students,” she wrote in an email to The Malibu Times in late January. “We pray to build this enrollment again as we are prepping to open a TK [transitional kindergarten] and hopefully by next year we will have an infant/preschool starting.”

Sycamore School, with an eastern Malibu location on Las Flores Canyon Road, saw a more consistent student enrollment, just over 40 students in the past few years, according to cofounder and director Christy Durham. 

As for public schools, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District spokesperson Gail Pinsker said the fire “did impact counts.” According to SMMUSD Board of Education Member Craig Foster, however, the fire seems to be only one of many issues contributing to the ongoing decline.

Back in 2014, as previously reported by The Times, officials from the enrollment research firm Decision Insite predicted a decline in Malibu enrollment (versus an increase in Santa Monica). 

By 2023, the firm predicted the local enrollment number to be 1,406. Currently, the number is roughly 1,405 students.

During the 2018-19 school year, Malibu’s public schools reported the following enrollment numbers, as documented by the state’s department of education:

*Point Dume Marine Science School: 171 students

*Juan Cabrillo Elementary School: 198 students

*Webster Elementary School: 269 students

*Malibu Middle and High School: 948 students

With the exception of Webster (Malibu’s only public school located east of Malibu Canyon), the public schools saw a significant decline based on numbers from October 2019 shared by the school district. Malibu Elementary School, which combined student populations at PDMSS and Juan Cabrillo, has approximately 273 students—much lower than the anticipated 350 students. Malibu Middle had 334 students while MHS had 528 for a total of 862 students on the MHS campus.

“We’re all facing the same things,” Foster said in a phone call with The Malibu Times Tuesday afternoon, listing problems schools are facing statewide including declining birth rates, budgeting and resource availability. 

Foster believes “two idiosyncratic things” with regard to Malibu were the discovery of polychlorinated biphenyls—better known by its abbreviation, PCBs—and the creation of a districtwide fundraising policy. 

PCBs—a known carcinogen—have been the subject of controversy for more than half a decade. In 2013, their existence in structures at Juan Cabrillo and Malibu High School was made public, sparking outrage. Meanwhile, fundraising for all SMMUSD schools was centralized in late 2011. The decision banned Parent Teacher Associations from making large-scale donations to their individual schools; this angered many Malibu parents, who believed local school programs would suffer from a unified budget. 

With a forthcoming rebuild of the Malibu High School campus and the district moving back to decentralized fundraising, Foster said “that story is behind us.”

“One of the really worrisome things for me is that what’s already baked into the system is continued: disenrollment over the next 5-10 years,” he predicted. “As you lose students, you’re losing your ability to be competitive. It’s dangerous ground we’re on.”

In an email, Pinsker shared the district is promoting classes to prospective families looking to enroll their kids in TK and kindergarten. 

Meanwhile, the school board is exploring the option of freezing interdistrict permitting categories. 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 parents 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. In a letter shared with the community, parents outlined that the loss of permitting could result in a loss of “50 percent or more of our socio-economic and racial diversity within the student body.”

The issue of permitting will come before the school board for a second reading at an upcoming meeting. 

For now, it is uncertain what this means for families outside district boundaries. As Foster put it, “It’s not clear what we’re telling parents who come to a kindergarten roundup.”

Some Malibu residents are worried declining enrollment will cause setbacks in the path toward an independent school district. Foster argued that wasn’t entirely the case.

He explained, “The key argument of separation is that the students in Malibu have not been served well by being under the administration for a school district that is, of, from and, by and large, for a community 25 miles away.”

If anything, Foster pointed out that this is more of a reason than anything for Malibu’s own school district. He said his fellow Santa Monica-based board members, as much as they can empathize with the tragedy and aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, do not see it as their greatest concern.

“It’s not front and center as the biggest crisis in front of them because Malibu is only 15 percent of the community.”

In the meantime, Foster mused that the school district needed to make decisions with both Santa Monica and Malibu schools in mind.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a delay in the interdistrict permitting agenda item. The item will come before the school board at a future meeting. 

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