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Workers building a new science building at Santa Monica High School shore up a ditch on the construction site. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — Deliberation over a $385 million school bond measure that could appear on the November ballot revealed deep divisions within the Board of Education and community as each struggled to balance much-needed school repairs with a desperate shortage in funding.

The bond, as recommended by the district’s Economic Feasibility Committee, would be used to gird schools against earthquakes, improve fire safety, buy new technology for students and repair old buildings like the 100-year-old Santa Monica High School campus.

It’s expected to cost the average homeowner approximately $185 per year, while renters would be charged roughly $16.

Disagreement over whether or not to put the bond measure forward focused on timing rather than need.

If approved, the measure would share the stage with two school funding measures — Proposition 30 by Gov. Jerry Brown and a Proposition 38 by activist Molly Munger.

Both would increase taxes to raise money that could be used for almost anything school-related, including teacher salaries and materials.

If the measures fail, the state has threatened even deeper cuts to all levels of education, including the University of California system, which announced Thursday that it would increase tuition by 20 percent if the governor’s tax plan doesn’t succeed.

A bond, on the other hand, can only be used for capital improvement projects like new buildings, fields and, in some cases, technology improvements.

Opponents of the bond, largely leaders of parent groups in the district, expressed fear that if either the Brown or Munger ballot measures failed, passing a bond in November would hurt the district’s ability to rally the community behind a parcel tax in 2013 to help cover what would then be a $10 million per year operating deficit.

The district is already asking a lot of the community, which passed a $268 million bond in 2006, a parcel tax in 2008, a half-cent sales tax in 2010 and recently got through a contentious battle over districtwide fundraising, said Sally Miller, former president of the Will Rogers Learning Community’s parent organization.

Running with a bond in November could squander the political capital needed to launch a winning campaign, and could cause significant voter-fatigue if the district came back to ask for money again just months after the bond measure passed.

They also felt that raising money to build new classrooms and improve existing ones would send the wrong message to teachers who face layoffs if the ax falls in November.

“If it’s difficult to pass a parcel tax today, think how difficult it will be to pass a parcel tax after we ask for $385 million to improve our facilities, which we need to do,” said Harry Keiley, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teacher’s Association. “The risk of going forward simply outweighs the risk of waiting.”

Those in favor of the measure felt that not only was now the right time to ask for capital funds, it may well be the only time.

At the beginning of the year, the Board of Education reconstituted the Economic Feasibility Committee, a 20-member group of heavy-hitters in education advocacy, to look into the possibility of putting either a school bond measure or parcel tax on the November ballot.

Polling completed by Goodwin Simon Strategic Research on the committee’s behalf revealed that there was effectively no hope of passing a parcel tax in November, particularly alongside the two other school-related taxes.

A parcel tax requires a two-thirds majority to pass, and polling numbers showed approximately 62 percent of likely voters in favor.

A bond measure, on the other hand, only needs 55 percent, a much lower threshold. Polling showed that a solid 64 percent of likely voters would get behind the measure.

Waiting until 2014, the next year that it would be possible to get a bond before voters, would mean no bond at all, said Neil Carrey, chair of the Economic Feasibility Committee.

“If we wait until 2014, there’s a strong possibility that we’ll be competing with bond measures from (City Hall) and (Santa Monica College),” Carrey said.

City Hall lost its Redevelopment Agency in 2012, the entity responsible for providing most of the money used to improve dilapidated infrastructure in Santa Monica.

Without that funding source, everything else is on the table, including bonds, said Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis, who was at the meeting speaking as an individual and not for the City Council.

SMC has denied previously that it has a bond measure in the works.

Putting a bond measure on the ballot now would not preclude a parcel tax later, said Debbie Mulvaney, the outgoing president of the parent group at Samohi and member of the Economic Feasibility Committee.

People in Santa Monica step up when they feel “the sky is falling,” as it most certainly will if the district gets slammed with another $5 million in cuts on top of its current deficit.

“I think we can pass a parcel tax on the back of a bond. I do not believe it will work in reverse,” Mulvaney said.

The six Board of Education members present reflected the divide within the community.

Vice Chair Laurie Lieberman came out in favor of moving forward with the bond measure. She described waiting for 2014 for a bond measure as a “pipe dream.”

“I don’t buy the arguments that we should wait because I don’t think the right time will ever come,” Lieberman said. “This is as right as it’s going to get. It’s not perfect, but I don’t see it getting better.”

Board members Nimish Patel and Jose Escarce both said that they were leaning against putting the bond forward. Anything that could either confuse voters and hurt a future parcel tax would be detrimental to the district, they said.

Polling numbers were silent on the success of a parcel tax after a bond measure passed, making the board’s decision a gamble, Escarce said.

“Could I regret this? Absolutely,” Escarce said. “If we don’t put a bond on and a parcel tax doesn’t pass, I’ll really regret this.”

Passing a bond measure and then coming up short on a parcel tax in the spring would be worse.

Board President Ben Allen resisted moving forward with the measure without a deeper level of consensus on the board, but ultimately the group directed staff to move forward with a resolution for its Aug. 1 meeting in Malibu.

The measure must pass at that meeting with a supermajority of the board (five votes) in order to slip in under the Aug. 10 deadline to get the measure on the ballot.

The bond will likely receive a chilly reception in Malibu. Residents there feel that they were, once again, cut out of the decision-making process, something that members of the Economic Feasibility Committee deny.

In a letter to the Board of Education, Craig Foster, president of the Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, told board members that if they expect Malibu residents to pony up cash for the bond measure, they should ask nicely.

“Our strong suggestion is that this be a discussion item on (the Aug. 1) agenda as it is tonight in Santa Monica and that the advocates of this bond muster their best arguments as to why this bond, which we will pay over 31 percent of for the next 20 to 30 years is in the best interest of Malibu,” Foster wrote.

ashley@smdp.com

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