SMM School Board Wants to End Specific Site Fundraising
• Wants All Contributions Funneled Through Education Foundation Serving District as a Whole
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
A proposal by the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District that would prohibit individual school PTAs from funding personnel, programs or collecting corporate gifts of more than $2500 and transfer authority for those fundraising activities to the district's Education Foundation, generated questions, concerns and anger from parents at a district board of education meeting in Malibu on Thursday. More than 40 speakers, the majority opposed to the plan, spoke to the board on the issue.
"Because these are extraordinary economic times and it is difficult to gauge the future, school district budgets should be managed with an eye to the significant downside risk created by the state's ongoing structural deficit," the proposal states. "In these times of great economic and budgetary uncertainty, school districts may need reserves that are much greater than the minimum recommended levels. Experts recommend that school districts continue to be cautious and focus on a multi-year strategy when recommending financial decisions and obtaining agreements."
The district's strategy presented at Thursday's meeting would mandate "district-wide fundraising," by funneling all major fundraising efforts through the Education Foundation, a non-profit organization that would then distribute the funds "equally" throughout district schools, through an "equity fund," according to the staff report.
Individual PTAs would be permitted to continue to raise funds to pay for field trips, and supplies, but would no longer be able to raise funds for staff salaries or programs at specific schools.
District Superintendent Sandra Lyon told the board that the current arrangement "is fraught with difficulties," and creates what she described as different instructional experiences at different schools. The new program will level the playing field while allowing the different school sites to "preserve autonomy" by permitting each school to determine how its portion of the communal funds will be spent.
Critics of the plan are deriding it as "mandated mediocrity," and expressing concerns that instead of improving the poorest performing and funded schools, the district's top schools will lose key programs and resources. Many Malibu parents say they are concerned that they will lose critical programs that they fund. At Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School, music, art, reading and science programs are paid for with money raised for the school by the PTA.
"The board recognizes that there are differences among various communities in their ability to contribute additional funds for programs and services at their local schools and these differences perpetuate inequalities in educational opportunities from one district school to another" the staff report states.
"In order to provide program parity and equity for all schools and students in the district, the Board designates the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation as the central fundraising entity for the school district. A centralized fundraising model will create a district focus on programs for all students of the district while allowing for flexibility at each school. The Education Foundation will be the only fundraising entity to raise funds for the district to use to pay for personnel and professional development.
"To achieve a greater level of equalization, the Board will establish an Equity Fund, which will be administered by the Education Services Department in conjunction with the Education Foundation. The purpose of the Equity Fund grants will be to improve the achievement of all students while simultaneously closing the achievement gap by mitigating the effects of the unequalized enrichment of schools."
Education Foundation Executive Director Linda Gross told the board that the recently reorganized foundation "is ready to take on the responsibility."
However, critics of the plan question Gross' ability to manage the greatly expanded fundraising responsibilities and question whether there is a conflict of interest, because Gross and board of education member Ralph Mechur are domestic partners.
Mechur routinely recuses himself from all items that involve the Education Foundation. Critics say that they find it troubling that an incomplete board makes critical financial decisions, now that the Education Foundation is poised to become the key fundraising element of the district.
Plan opponents are calling for professional fundraising leadership to augment or replace Gross and the SMMEF's other two principal members, program director Rachel Faulkner, and marketing and events coordinator Yolanda Lewis, if the fundraising revisions are approved.
Some speakers, including Kim Bonewitz, co-president of the Juan Cabrillo Elementary PTA, warned that even discussion of the plan has had a negative impact on fundraising.
Juan Cabrillo, she said, had already raised 50 percent of its goal for the year, but contributions have suddenly stopped.
One parent who spoke out in favor of the plan described it as "an act of social justice."
Most parents expressed a willingness to work with the district to craft a modified plan, but many Malibu residents expressed anger at what they described as increasing disenfranchisement from the Santa Monica-centric district. Malibu constitutes 20 percent of the district, but does not have a representative on the board of education or the Education Foundation.
The board will be taking more public comment on the issue at its Nov. 17 meeting at district headquarters in Santa Monica.
The staff report on the fundraising revision plan is available online at www.smmusd.org. Information on the Education Foundation is available at smmef.org