A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the Santa Monica-Malibu schools were in crisis on every level. The problems run long and deep and extend into just about every aspect of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

After two decades of ineffective leadership, the Board of Education finally limped into action.

Last summer, it hired noted educator and consultant Pedro Noguera to conduct a study and suggest fixes for the problems.

Noguera took issue with my column even though it was based lock, stock and barrel on his own study. In a letter to the Daily Press on June 30, Dr. Noguera wrote, “Bill Bauer mistakenly concludes that SMMUSD is in ‘crisis’ based on his reading of the report … ”

Seems like we have a difference of opinion.

But, I’ve heard it all before only from our own school supporters who believe that only spreading good news will make bad problems go away. I hope Noguera isn’t drinking that “Aren’t we wonderful?” Kool-Aid.

Considering the nature of the problems here and their longevity, I would think “crisis” would be an apt description of the situation, as would educators in most school districts — especially given the extensive resources available in this community to fix them. Apparently they’re just not at a level that Noguera would call “a crisis.”

These are problems the district must resolve or face decades of flawed educational practices, unprepared students, rising deficits and increased taxes.

The “achievement gap,” the lagging academic performance of white (Caucasian) and Asian students compared to students of color has been the most troublesome. The SMMUSD has failed miserably and bringing the various ethnic, racial and socio-economic groups into parity.

When it comes to finance, the board has been especially incompetent whether it be salaries for administrators (which are among the highest in the country) to fundraising.

The SMMUSD currently is facing a $10-million annual operating budget deficit. There’s the possibility of unprecedented cuts for the 2017-18 school year which could include school closures, cutting arts and programs as well as other “belt-tightening” options which may be unavoidable.

The board recently gave all employees a very large (and overdue) raise; however, that’s still a new and significant contributor to the deficit. The deficit also comes at the end of a massive increase in school funding which brings the State funding in line with pre-crash levels. It’s still not clear what’s causing this deficit here given that other similar districts are not in this position.

The district gets an educational subsidy from the State, however the “ADA” subsidy doesn’t cover the full cost of educating a SMMUSD student. District generated sales and parcel taxes, donations, fees and miscellaneous income (real estate leases) help make up for the shortfall. Bottom line: we pay to educate out-of-town or nonresident students.

“Permitting” helps mitigate the financial loss (State subsidy) resulting from resident students who’ve transferred to private schools as well as the loss of high energy/involvement parents, private financial support and community integration. Statistics in the “Cradle to Career” report section on school age children in Santa Monica vs. the district’s resident enrollment numbers prove this point. This issue in totality is at the heart of SMMUSD’s failure to serve our communities.

Although it appears that a split between schools in Santa Monica and Malibu is inevitable, the district’s response to health concerns in Malibu classrooms has been particularly inept and expensive considering that money being spent to avoid remediation (through legal fees) is more than the remediation would cost. Legal fees of $5.7 million have been discussed at board meetings, with $1.5 million being approved in the most recent meeting alone. That’s $5.7-million for attorneys not for education and climbing. Unacceptable.

Malibu families generally oppose the school board’s highly touted “centralized fundraising.” It’s viewed as taking funding decisions away from the local schools and giving them to a school board with different and unpopular spending programs.

And Noguera admitted that the possible separation of Malibu and Santa Monica into two autonomous districts is a “significant distraction from a clear focus on student needs.”

Veteran board members Jose Escarce, Maria Leon-Vaquez and Ralph Mechur are clearly the “old guard” who have substantially contributed to the shortcomings — along with former Superintendent Sandra Lyon. At a recent board meeting, Leon-Vazquez and Mechur were particularly clueless about the differing requirements of a voluntary fundraising campaign from those of a statutorily funded school district (or a government body with taxing authority).

The old superintendent is gone. In retrospect, the precipitous, five-year decline of SMMUSD was under Lyon’s watch. While there were certainly other factors contributing to the problems, Lyon was “in charge” by handling initiatives such as toxic site pollution in Malibu, fundraising inequities and the de-unification of Santa Monica and Malibu schools.

Lyon is best remembered for her bad decisions such as the public relations bungling of the handling of an altercation between teacher and wrestling coach Mark Black and a student allegedly selling drugs in his classroom.

There was an equally embarrassing situation wherein popular, championship-winning Samohi baseball coach Kurt Schwengel was relieved of coaching facilities and replaced by an “insider.” That incident raised issues concerning bypassing human resource policies and contradictory “on faculty” requirements for qualifying to coach at Samohi.

We now have an extraordinary opportunity for reflection and change. With Noguera’s guidance, a new, permanent superintendent coming Jan. 1 and the possible election of fresh and desperately needed new blood for the board, we can expect a first-class school district, not one damaged by cronyism, favoritism, incompetence, ego and “business as usual.”   

We just need to start making good decisions. We must do better and we haven’t. That’s the crisis, whether Dr. Noguera agrees with me or not.

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

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