SMMUSD May Misgauge Extent of Malibu Concern about Funding Changes
• Issue Is Fueling Campaign Efforts for Separate School District
The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education appears prepared to approve a controversial plan that would centralize fundraising and prevent individual school PTAs from raising funds to directly pay for programs and personnel, while transferring fundraising authority to the Santa Monica Malibu Education Foundation.
If it is passed, the program will apply first to the district's elementary schools, expanding to middle and high schools once the elementary program is in place. Implementation is scheduled to begin in 2013, according to the staff report. The final vote will take place at a special meeting in Santa Monica on Tuesday, Nov. 29.
The board heard four hours of testimony from more than 100 public speakers—the vast majority opposed to the plan—at its meeting in Santa Monica last week. The meeting room at SMMUSD Headquarters was filled to capacity during the meeting. Two overflow rooms and the hall accommodated those who could not find seats in the meeting room, but lacked adequate means of following what was occurring in the main room.
Malibu parents were out in force to oppose the plan. One presentation described the plan as a transfer of funds from Malibu schools to Santa Monica. "All Malibu schools lose, all Santa Monica schools gain," the speaker said.
Opponents warned that families that have been generous supporters of their schools will take their children—and their money —out of public schools, greatly reducing resources.
"Public schools have become private schools," one plan proponent responded.
Santa Monica education activist Chris Harding described the debate as "a civil rights issue," but even the district's Financial Oversight Commission expressed concern about the potential for the policy to negatively impact funding, and many speakers said they would be more supportive if the policy change was accompanied by a concrete road map for implementation. The district plans to discuss how to implement the change once the policy is in place.
One parent had harsh words for the district's largely unsuccessful Equity Fund, a plan implemented in 2004 that was supposed to mandate that 15 percent of all PTA funds be distributed equally but that critics say has been seriously undermined by loopholes and exemptions.
"If we can't trust you with 15 percent how can we trust you with 100 percent?" one parent asked.
The Education Foundation's fundraising expertise was questioned by other speakers, as was the board's impartiality. Board member Ralph Mechur lives with SMMEF Executive Director Linda Gross, and recuses himself from agenda items that pertain to the Education Foundation.
Parents at an information meeting held at Point Dume Elementary School earlier this month expressed disgust with the school district, calling the plan "a done deal," and calling for secession from Santa Monica.
According to Webster parent Craig Foster, who is spearheading opposition to the fundraising centralization plan, Malibu's three elementary schools lost 20 percent of their students to private schools this year. "We are on the cusp. Losing about six percent of our families to private schools could cost Malibu 50 percent of its funding. My big concern is that it is going to spiral," he said.
Observers say that the fundraising policy change has become a flashpoint for the Malibu secession movement.
"For every Malibu parent who goes and speaks up at the district meeting there are 10 who are just as angry but unable to go to Santa Monica," a Point Dume parent told the Malibu Surfside News. "The board just doesn't care. They care about our money, but not about our concerns."
The board vote is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, Nov. 29, at the Lincoln Middle School auditorium, 1501 California Ave, in Santa Monica. The agenda and staff report are available online at www.smmusd.org