The latest school fundraising controversy centers around new mechanisms the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is considering to insure that lower achieving schools obtain a more equal share of the fundraising pie.

The movement stems from a report from Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based educational policy, research and advocacy organization that revealed a 124 point disparity between white and Asian students in the district compared with lower scoring Latino students on a statewide performance test. African American students fared even worse.

Some claim the performance gap is attributable to schools in better neighborhoods with better educational resources because they have more money to spend than schools in lower income neighborhoods. Social justice activists claim wealthy parents and PTAs involved with higher ranked schools are much more effective in fundraising than their counterparts at lower-achieving schools.

Seven years ago, former SMMUSD Superintendent John Deasy (now superintendent of the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District) proposed a 15 percent "tax" on all donations to schools, clubs or school activities. To help balance budget disparities and close the gap, tax monies would be placed in an Equity Fund and disbursed among low-achieving schools by the school board using a need based formula.

In past years, these monies have been used to hire teachers and staff, purchase instructional materials and provide extra support to low-achieving students in almost all SMMUSD schools including wealthier schools such as Santa Monica’s Franklin and Roosevelt elementary schools and Malibu’s Point Dume Elementary according to SMMUSD documents.

"Taxing" gifts and donations even at 15 percent doesn’t sit well with many donors. I wonder if placing all or a large percentage of school donations into a common pot to be doled out by a politically-influenced school board is going to far.

According to news repots, PTAs and other successful fundraising entities are worried that their efforts to improve their children’s schools will be compromised and their own kids will suffer. They point out that Title 1 funds and other federal and state aid programs are already directed to minority neighborhood and low-achieving schools to help close the funding/achievement gap.

The achievement gap between wealthier and low income/minority school students is troubling and needs to be dealt with. But, just throwing more money at these schools may not solve the problems because the many reasons for the disparity are complicated. Multiple solutions are needed.

Even more worrisome is that Education Trust-West’s study results seem to indicate annual Equity Fund money ($300,000 last year, alone) distributed to lower achieving /poorer schools has yet to produce any real benefit. Expanding the tax or going to a "all in one pot" fundraising model is taking a big gamble with no guarantee of a payoff.

Finding ways to help close the achievement gap and financially support lower achieving schools is vital. But robbing Peter to pay Paul runs the risk of alienating donors and reducing donations, creating ill will and diminishing the quality of education at our best schools.

Less trees

Speaking of money, the remodeling of the Town Square in front of City Hall is stuck in limbo-land. After City Hall unveiled an extensive revisioning of its front lawn, the Landmarks Commission announced a list of features they considered historic and wanted retained. It’s all turned into a veritable cat fight.

Landmarks cited the flagpole, north City Hall parking lot design, landscape and garden configurations, numerous trees and plantings, the rose garden in front of City Hall’s entrance, brick retaining steps and walls near the front entrance and more.

City staff and its design team had their own ideas. They wanted a water feature, to rebuild the main entrance steps and retaining walls, redesign walkways, do extensive landscaping including installing new rose trellises and seating and planting two double rows of trees on the present lawn area and more.

Personally speaking, I’d move the central “memorial” rose garden to a less conspicuous location. Aside from the couple of weeks annually when the roses bloom, the garden looks like a weed patch. In its place, build a full-on, rectangular reflecting pool — perfect for City Hall’s 1930′s PWA Moderne architectural style.

When one looks at the renderings for the renovation, one thing jumps out. Where’s the public assembly area? The north and south lawns in front of City Hall now provide plenty of open space for public gatherings but the new design includes double rows of trees on the outer edges of these lawns, shrinking the current open lawns considerably.

In a Democratic society, it’s important there be a spacious area for the public to gather in, rally, protest or, yes, Virginia, even praise the actions of its political leaders. I’m thinking we need to move the trees and accommodate a thousand citizens or more, not just a few hundred.

Landmark supporters will plead their case at the Oct. 25 City Council meeting.

Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com

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