MALIBU — The Board of Education voted 6-1 Wednesday to place a $385 million bond measure on the Nov. 6 ballot amid concerns that the move could hurt efforts to raise money to pay teachers in the future.
The bond would be used to cover a portion of what officials estimate to be $932 million worth of need across the district, specifically upgrading classrooms and installing safety devices like fire alarms and sprinklers.
If approved, it would cost property owners $185 per year on average. Renters would see a charge of roughly $16 per year. Amounts would vary because bond assessments are based on the value of property.
Twenty percent of the money would be guaranteed to go to Malibu schools, a point which still rankles some who note that Malibu residents contribute over 30 percent of the cash for any bond measure because of its higher land values.
The money could only be used to improve the facilities within the school district, and not for “operational costs” like teachers’ salaries or supplies, but the needs on local campuses were too great not to take action, said Superintendent Sandra Lyon.
Polling suggested that the district would not be able to pass a parcel tax, a different funding mechanism that could have paid for salaries and other things prohibited under a bond.
Although parcel tax dollars are more flexible, they also require a two-thirds majority, while a bond needs only 55 percent to pass.
“It’s not an easy decision, and there’s always tug and pull between operating costs and facility needs, and both are important and ongoing,” Lyon said.
Teachers and students alike need a clean, safe environment in which to work and learn, and technology in the otherwise-celebrated school district is out of date, Lyon said.
“Parents in our community may not know immediately about the high quality of teachers, programs or staff, and they may make judgments as they drive by or make cursory classroom visits,” Lyon said.
Although no one spoke against the need for money to improve SMMUSD facilities, many have questioned the timing of the measure.
It will share a ballot with two other school funding measures — Propositions 30 and 38 — which aim to raise money for schools by increasing taxes on the wealthy and, in the case of Proposition 30, by increasing the sales tax by .25 percent.
Unlike the bond, the money from the propositions can pay for anything, including covering teacher salaries and paying for materials.
If both statewide measures fail in November, school districts across the state will be hit with crippling budget cuts.
SMMUSD Chief Financial Officer Jan Maez has estimated that the district’s $5 million operating deficit will double if both fail, leaving the district to make brutal cuts to bring its fiscal house in order.
That doom and gloom scenario is one reason that local parent organizations and others have approached the idea of a bond with trepidation.
They fear that if the two funding measures fail, Santa Monica and Malibu will have to band together and pass a parcel tax to begin patching the holes in operational funding, and that a recently-passed bond measure would make that all the more difficult.
Those in support of the bond believe that the momentum of passing a bond, added to the “sky is falling” reality of losing the other two measures, will propel a parcel tax forward.
“This is not the question of moving forward on a bond or work on a parcel tax,” said former school board member Barry Snell. “It’s not either-or — it’s both.”
When the item first went before the board on July 18, several board members seemed hesitant to even bring it back by Aug. 1.
Seated behind the dais in Malibu City Hall, that sentiment had clearly changed.
It was Lyon’s commitment to the idea that swayed Boardmember Jose Escarce, who had previously been hesitant to risk a spring parcel tax in any way.
Boardmember Nimish Patel also changed his position in the intervening two weeks.
“People call this political science. It’s not. It’s political art,” Patel said. “Like with art, you have to evaluate and you have to adjust.”
Boardmember Ralph Mechur, the only board member to oppose the measure, disagreed.
“I think we can do this in 2014 and we would be better prepared,” Mechur said, indicating that he wanted more planning done to show where the money would go.
The board managed to put the measure on the November ballot, but now the real work begins.
The school community will have to raise support amongst parents and those without children to get behind another bond on top of Measure BB, which was passed in 2006; a 2008 parcel tax and a half-cent sales tax from 2010.
District officials don’t yet know if they’ll have support from the Parent Teacher Association Council, a powerful advocacy group in the city.
PTA Council Co-President Lori Whitesell said that the group has to get the full language of the ballot measure and give it to a study committee. It will then go before the executive board, and then the full body.
The group hopes to have a position on the measure by early to mid-September. If they come out in favor, they’ll have less than two months to mount a campaign.
“It’ll be tight, very tight,” Whitesell said.
The district will also have to work closely with residents of Malibu, who have felt cut off from the decision-making process because of a lack of representation on the Board of Education as well as the Economic Feasibility Committee, the group that was instrumental in drafting the bond language.
“It’s much easier for Malibu to oppose a bond measure than to support it,” Craig Foster, member of Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, told the board. “We asked you to give us reasons to support it. I can’t say that they’ve been unambiguously given, but we want to give support to the board in what it feels is best for the district.”
In return for their support, Malibu residents want assurances that bond money will be spent on projects that they support.
On Wednesday, Foster asked the board to create a joint powers authority or other body that would give Malibu residents direct representation on how the funds were spent.
“It needs to be crystal clear,” he said.