My wife and I are very fortunate and privileged people; we own a home in Santa Monica — or rather, share ownership with a large financial institution. The vast majority of people in the world would look at our domestic bounty with awe. Such good fortune is not without cost or sacrifice, of course. Mortgage payments, insurance, property taxes, utilities, the occasional visit by a plumber, all conspire to keep my wife and I off Telluride ski slopes, Tahitian beaches, Parisian boulevards, and Elton John’s guest list.
However, this spring we are going to once again put our carnal pleasures aside and vote for Measure A, the parcel tax put forth by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
This gesture will add $198 to our next, already burdensome, property tax bill.
If, like me, you don’t have children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews who attend Santa Monica-Malibu schools, you might have no way of knowing just how much trouble they are in right now. Let me tell you.
In brief the story goes like this: Education money comes from the state. It gets channeled through a labyrinthine array of programs, funds, bureaus and divisions, but it is, for all its travels, state money. (Forget about the federal component; despite all the talk in D.C. their contribution is negligible even in the best of times.) And the cold, hard fact is that our state’s fiscal situation hasn’t looked this bad since the Joad’s coasted down from Tehachapi.
Our governor has told us that “California faces a growing financial crisis and… (is) heading towards a financial Armageddon.” (And he wasn’t referring to that astro-opera with Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis.) On the other hand you might prefer gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown’s concise assessment that “This state is in big trouble. Unprecedented.”
If you like to envision our state as a bear — and who doesn’t — picture that bear with a very sad face, patches of missing hair and the pockets pulled out of his tattered little pants. And that scrawny, anemic bear’s situation is getting grizzlier all the time.
That unfortunate bear, our state, is forced to cut back on school funding along with everything else. The result is as horrible as it is “unprecedented.” For the SMMUSD this means they are looking at a real fiscal cluster-cuss if additional funds cannot be found. Depending on who you ask and on what day you are asking the district’s deficit falls somewhere between $14 million and Ay carumba!
Without the new income generated by the $198 per parcel tax, additional teachers will lose their jobs; real teachers with names and children of their own. Security guards who assist in protecting children and keeping order, nurses, library coordinators, aides who work directly with children and supervise playgrounds, custodians who keep the physical environments of children safe, clean and functional and, yes, administrators who oversee all of this and more will be cut loose. Class sizes, already too large, will be increased substantially. Programs that do not directly impact standardized test scores (i.e. music, physical education and art — already ghosts of their formerly robust 1970s and ‘80s incarnations) will be nuked. The educational terrain in this city will look a lot like the last reel of “On the Beach” (the spooky 1959 version with Gregory Peck, not the lame 2000 remake with Armand Assante). I could go on, but some of you reading this might have to up your meds.
Over the next few weeks you are going to be hearing a lot about this issue. You will hear endorsements from the notable and the obscure, the elected and the appointed, the inspired and the pedestrian, people you respect and others you think ought to be run out of town on a rail. And me. But what brings these strange bedfellows together is the common belief that Santa Monica schools are at the very core of our well-being as a community and the danger we all face is both stark and frighteningly real.
You will of course hear the obligatory voices of opposition, some of them quite rational. There will be talk of “hidden funds” — trust me, there ain’t any — and they’ll trot out the usual vocabulary of dissident critique, “waste”, “inequity,” “misguided,” “scare-tactics,” “mismanagement,” and “Tomfoolery” (well, perhaps the last one would just be used by elderly dissidents). But none of this makes any difference. The current fiscal crisis is real, catastrophic, and unprecedented in the past 32 years.
To again quote our governor, we must “put aside our ideological differences … and solve this problem.” We might also need to put aside, at least temporarily, our gripes, grudges and disagreements with the district, its governing board, the superintendent and your first-grade teacher Ms. McGillicuddy who told you to stop eating the paste.
Sadly, even if the voters of Santa Monica approve the parcel tax increase the SMMUSD will still be in trouble for the foreseeable future. The shortfall is that gruesome. But the crucial difference between an unattractive future and a hideous one will make a great deal of difference to those of us who depend upon our schools to provide a quality educational experience for our kids.
The parcel tax really must pass.
Sean McDaniel is a writer living in Santa Monica. He is the author of “A Catcher’s Companion: The World of Holden Caulfield” and, in the interest of full disclosure, a former SMMUSD teacher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.