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Tere Cruz and her son, Andres, jog around the Santa Monica High School track on Monday afternoon. As part of a joint-use agreement with City Hall, the school district will receive $7.5 million in exchange for allowing residents and City Hall access to ball fields and other facilities. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — Following the conclusion of an 18-month standoff in which the City Council withheld more than $800,000 in financial assistance to the schools because of concerns about special education, district officials are anticipating an increase in funding.

A contingent of representatives from City Hall and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District recently reached an agreement to extend for another three years a contract between the two entities in which the SMMUSD receives millions in city funding in exchange for public use of its facilities.

The proposed contract extension calls for an increase in the base pay of the Masters Facilities Use Agreement from the current level of $7.2 million to $7.5 million effective next year, allowing for increases of between 2 and 4 percent over the next several years to reflect inflation.

The agreement, which will go before the council tonight for approval, will come with a few changes from its original incarnation about five years ago, including the addition of language that would require the SMMUSD to maintain its Special Education District Advisory Committee (SEDAC) and for the Board of Education to hold at least two meetings every year regarding special education policies and programs.

The change came in response to concerns expressed by parents in the special education community in January when the council voted to release a portion of the Masters Facilities Use Agreement funding that it withheld, fearing that the district would pull back on special education reform since it met the requirements of city officials to receive the money.

“I think all acknowledge that there has been some improvement but just about everyone recognizes there is more to go,” Mayor Ken Genser said. “I thought it was important that we reflect that, to ensure … there be a commitment that there will be opportunities for a stakeholders’ committee to independently evaluate district policies and report to the board.”

A committee consisting of the respective heads of each organization, including the superintendent, city manager and elected officials, convened in January to begin renegotiating the terms of the contract, just weeks after the council voted to release the funds due to the district.

While it’s a slight increase, the bump in funding is expected to help the district which is facing more than $10 million in cuts next year from the state.

The council originally withheld about $530,000 from the district, representing the increase in base pay the SMMUSD was set to receive in its contract starting in 2007-08. That figure rose to $804,470 this year, which includes the original $530,000 plus an increase for the current fiscal year.

“I think we recognized there were deep concerns how the special education program was being run,” Board of Education President Ralph Mechur said. “It’s in the interest of the city to make sure the public parents have the ability to be involved in the reorganization of how we provide those services.”

The district has made changes in special education since the issue first arose several years ago, including imposing a moratorium on confidentiality clauses in individualized education plans for students, which was the biggest concern among parents who called them “gag orders.”

A working group responsible for putting together a list of recommended actions and policies was also assembled. The group is expected to present those recommendations soon.

Superintendent Tim Cuneo said he understands the council’s interest in affixing a special education component to the contract.

“We felt we were able to work out language that fits with our district practices and policies … and meets the interest and the intent of council,” Cuneo said.

Ken Haker, the co-chair of SEDAC, said the contract amendment shows that SEDAC has brought attention to the issues in special education and the goal of all parents to provide a “first-class education” to all students.

“It also signals the development of a more trusting and cooperative relationship between the city, the Board of Education, and SEDAC,” he said. “More importantly, it will ensure that the Board of Education continues making significant improvement toward creating a culture of transparency, cooperation and respect between district staff, board members and parents of children with special needs.”

The contract will also come with another change that requires both parties to convene each January to discuss possible adjustments to the base pay depending on the financial situation of both institutions.

“We’re going to carefully review both the city and the district’s financial conditions on an annual basis as opposed to longer periods of time,” Mechur said.

City Manager Lamont Ewell said that if there are opportunities to decrease or increase the contract, those decisions would be referred back to the council and school board. The decision to convene annually was made in response to the current economic hardships facing City Hall and the school district.

“If the city is in a better position, (an increase) is something we can look at,” he said. “It also works the opposite way too given the deterioration of city revenues.”

The agreement came in response to the state budget cuts to education in 2003 that resulted in more than 200 layoffs in SMMUSD alone, prompting parents to begin seeking a more consistent stream of funding from City Hall.

Parents eventually launched a campaign to push a controversial charter amendment that would have specifically identified ongoing revenue for the schools, eventually gathering more than 15,000 signatures.

Just as organizers were about to submit the petitions to have the measure placed on the ballot, the City Council narrowly agreed to a compromise in May 2004, leading to the Master Facilities Use Agreement. The plan was largely backed by the Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS).

“CEPS is grateful that our civic and community leaders join CEPS and the education constituency in supporting our local public schools so strongly,” Chairwoman Shari Davis said on Monday. “And that our City Council has recognized education as a priority in these challenging economic times.”

melodyh@smdp.com

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