Lawsuit Filed by SMMUSD and City of Santa Monica Challenging the Constitutionality of SB442

March 21, 2022 10:57 AM

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and City of Santa Monica jointly filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization (County Committee) challenging the constitutionality of a newly enacted state law, Senate Bill 442, to preserve the voting rights of Santa Monica and Malibu voters on how they elect their school board.

SB 442, which became effective January 1, 2022, authorizes the County Committee, by resolution, to approve a proposal to establish trustee areas and elect governing board members using district-based elections without submitting the resolution to the electors of the City and District for approval. For more than 100 years, the Charter for the City of Santa Monica has continuously provided for the Board of Education to be elected at large. Section 900 of the Charter says that the “Board of Education shall consist of seven members elected from the School District at large.”

“This case is not about whether SMMUSD Board members should continue to be elected at large or by trustee-area districts. It is about who should be entitled to make that decision,” said School Board President Maria Leon-Vazquez. “The City of Santa Monica and District strongly believe the decision whether to move to trustee-area elections should be made by the residents and voters of SMMUSD, not by a committee composed of unelected representatives with little or no ties to either Santa Monica or Malibu.”

SMMUSD Board of Education voted 6-0 in closed session on March 17, 2022 (Craig Foster was absent) to move forward with this lawsuit. The City of Santa Monica voted 5-2 on February 8, 2022 to support SMMUSD and to oppose the nullification of the City Charter at any hearing held by the County Committee on School District Organization, and, if necessary, through litigation.

“For a charter city such as Santa Monica, this law violates our sovereignty under the California Constitution and overreaches into our municipal affairs,” said Santa Monica Mayor Sue Himmelrich. “The Santa Monica community is entitled - with their votes - to make changes to Santa Monica's election system and City Charter, not a committee with purview over Los Angeles County as a whole.”

The new law violates the California Constitution’s guarantee that charter cities like Santa Monica may provide in their city charters for “the manner in which, the times at which, and the terms for which the members of boards of education shall be elected or appointed.”

Pursuant to the California Constitution, any change in the manner of electing members of the Board of Education from at-large to trustee-area elections requires amending the Santa Monica City Charter, and that in turn can only occur if a majority of all of the qualified electors of the entire school district (residents of both Santa Monica and Malibu) approve the change.

Under the purported authority of SB 442, the County Committee, prior to the filing of this lawsuit, was poised to hold a hearing to consider effectively nullifying City Charter section 900 and imposing trustee-area elections without submitting the proposed change to SMMUSD’s voters for their approval.

The County Committee is a statutorily created body consisting of 11 members who are elected at an annual meeting of school district trustee representatives, with at least two members required to be elected from each county supervisorial district. This means that at least eight members of this 11-member committee have absolutely no ties with Santa Monica, Malibu, or SMMUSD. Because none of its members are elected by SMMUSD voters, the committee cannot be held accountable by those voters.

“We want to ensure that if voters decide in the future to move to by-trustee-area board members, the drawing of those districts should be done through a public and transparent process with local input, not forced through unilaterally by a committee with limited familiarity about SMMUSD,” said School Board Vice President Dr. Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein.

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