CITY HALL It took more than 18 months, a time marked by the release of a critical report on special education and the surprising resignation of a controversial figure, but school officials finally got what they wanted.

Convinced the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has met all the demands placed upon them to begin changing the culture of special education, the City Council on Tuesday voted to release approximately $804,000 that it had been withholding because of parent concerns over the troubled program.

“I’m very appreciative of the council taking the position and releasing the money,” Interim Superintendent Tim Cuneo said on Wednesday. “We have met the conditions that were established by the council and there is a great deal of work to be accomplished by the district and as the superintendent, I am committed to making that happen.”

The release of the money came at a critical time for the district where officials learned before the meeting that they could see a loss of 16 percent in revenues — a little less than $10 million — over the next 18 months. The figure is based on discussions going on in Sacramento over the state budget and appropriations to local school districts.

The money that was released is part of approximately $7 million in city funding that the district receives annually through its joint-use agreement in which the district permits public use of school facilities in exchange for added revenue.

After hearing complaints from parents, the council in the summer of 2007 decided to hold onto half a million dollars that represented the increase the district was set to receive when City Hall and the SMMUSD renegotiated the terms of the contract earlier that year. The amount that was ultimately released to the district includes about half of the funds due this year.

Parents have for years alleged a hostile environment during negotiation sessions for their children’s education plans, slamming the practice of including confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements between the district and families.

City officials placed several conditions on the release of the money, ordering the district to conduct an audit on special education and stop the practice of confidentiality clauses, both of which have been completed. The report, which included critical statements by parents, was released last spring and Deputy Superintendent Tim Walker, a key figure in the controversy, later resigned.

The district has also formed several working groups to study and synthesize various reports conducted on special education over the past few years and hosted a fall forum with the Santa Monica-Malibu Council of PTAs in November.

Several long-time educational advocates joined school officials in asking the council to release the money, arguing that all of the conditions have been met and the district is in need of money.

“The state is in a very difficult financial condition right now,” Gleam Davis, who serves on various District Advisory Committees, said. “The district has made strides and has set in place committees and other institutions that will continue to make those strides.”

While some changes have been made in the program, a group of parents argued on Tuesday that it was premature for the district to approach the council, pointing out that much of the efforts outlined in a recent letter from Cuneo to Mayor Ken Genser have just started to get underway.

Some expressed fear that there would be a lack of oversight from the council if the money was released and that the district would abandon its plans of pushing for change.

Richard Milanesi, the father of a child in special education, likened the situation to fixing a plumbing problem in his house, wondering whether he should pay the plumber before or after a city inspector comes to check out the work.

“My heart tells me to give the money to the school district, but my brain tells me if you release the funds, everything stops right now,” he said. “I implore you to hold the money back until the work is done.”

While Milanesi’s comparison drew laughter from residents who attended the meeting, his wife had a different tone to her speech, prefacing her comments to the council by saying that she hoped she wouldn’t cry.

She had just spent eight hours in a negotiation session.

“There is still very much a hostile environment and fear among parents,” she said.

Debra Shepherd, a parent of a child in special education, said that she has not observed any changes and her personal situation has gotten worse, claiming the district has been adversarial toward her family since November.

“The district threatened to take services away for my child,” she said.

Some parents suggested that the council consider including conditions when they begin renegotiating the joint-use agreement this year, allowing for an opportunity to continue oversight over the school district. There were also questions raised about how much control city officials should have over the district, which falls under the purview of the Board of Education.

Genser said residents should not view the release of the money as the end of the line.

“When we renew the contract, if we (hear) that residents of this city are not getting good service, I have a feeling there would be conditions put on,” Genser said.

District officials agreed that there is still work to be done and assured progress will continue.

Cuneo said he was open to discussing the possibility of placing conditions on the joint-use agreement.

“I know there are parents who feel like nothing has been accomplished,” Cuneo said. “There is a real committed professional staff that has done a tremendous amount of work to make sure of the success done so far.

“It really does take the community and our staff to work on this together and we’re committed to doing that.”

melodyh@smdp.com

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